'Creation': Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin struggling over natural selection
Friday, January 22, 2010
At the outset of "Creation," on-screen titles announce that the film's subject, Charles Darwin, was responsible for the biggest single idea in the history of thought: the theory of natural selection. So the assumption is that Jon Amiel's film, starring the wonderful Paul Bettany as Darwin, will set out to meet the daunting challenge of bringing such static pursuits as thinking and writing to some kind of animated life.
It turns out that Amiel ("Sommersby," "Copycat") bypasses that thorny problem by making "Creation" not about Darwin's intellectual journey but about the emotional and spiritual crises he weathered in order to write his groundbreaking book "On the Origin of Species." The result is a movie that, while presenting Darwin as a more dynamic and conflicted figure than the familiar bearded portrait would suggest, descends into highly pitched melodrama and morbid angst. For a movie that clearly seeks to bring Darwin to life, "Creation" spends an awful lot of time wallowing in death.
Most of the film is set in 1858 at Down House, where Darwin lived with his wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), and the couple's many children. There, for nearly 20 years, the naturalist sat on the research he'd collected on the HMS Beagle, agonizing over whether to publish his findings and upend a Victorian social system rooted in Christian ideas of creationism and human dominion. Bettany and Connelly happen to be married in real life, which gives their domestic habits the ring of lived truth. Emma, who was Darwin's cousin, was also a devout Christian; part of Darwin's reluctance to publish was that he knew the theory of evolution would break his wife's heart.
The other factor leading to Darwin's creative block was the death, seven years earlier, of his daughter Annie at age 10; in scenes where Darwin is visited by the goading spirit of Annie (newcomer Martha West) and finally in the film's keening climax in the town where she died, "Creation" seems as neurotically focused on her passing as Darwin was. (In case viewers aren't moved enough by this grievous episode, Amiel includes a wrenching subplot of an orangutan taken from the wild and confined in a European zoo.)
Amiel makes an admirable stab at overcoming the staid, episodic conventions of the typical biopic, staging Darwin's mental and physical breakdown with startling moments of magical realism. And Bettany, until now most often seen as a valued supporting player, makes an energetic bid for deserved leading-man status, even as he seems to wither before our eyes. Some of the film's most effective scenes feature Darwin and his best friend, the Rev. Innes (Jeremy Northam), debating the nature of nature while surrounded by the casual carnage of a soft English countryside. There, bird eats bug eats other bug, in nature's brutal, elegant balance.
But all the toggling back and forth in time, tone and visual style eventually takes its toll, and when Darwin and Emma engage in a pivotal encounter, "Creation" feels too agonizingly soapy for its subject. As arresting as Darwin's personal story was, viewers may find themselves longing for a more straightforward, unsentimental depiction of his mind at work. For all its ambition, "Creation" is fatally weakened by an excess of pathos; in a Darwinian universe, it would be quickly swallowed up by a leaner, fitter movie.
** PG-13. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains intense thematic material. 108 minutes.