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by Mel Valentin

"Grief counseling with Charles Darwin."
4 stars

Biopics tend to fall into two categories: grand, sweeping, all-in-one biopics that cover a subject’s life from cradle to grave and biopics that focus on a specific, career- and personality-defining period in the subject’s life. Directed by Jon Amiel ("The Core," "Entrapment,""The Man Who Knew Too Little," "Sommersby," "Queen of Hearts," "The Singing Detective") and written by John Collee ("Happy Feet," "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"), "Creation," falls into the second category, centering on Charles Darwin’s struggle to overcome grief at losing his daughter and finishing the paradigm-shifting, culture-changing "On the Origin of Species" while facing the opprobrium of his detractors and opponents in the Anglican church, politicians, the media, and society-at-large.

Creation opens as Darwin (Paul Bettany) happily chats with his oldest daughter, Annie (Martha West), as she sits for a time-consuming photograph. From this first, brief scene, it’s evident why Annie’s loss hit Darwin so hard. Annie shares Darwin’s inquisitiveness and his interest in the natural world. In essence, she mirrors his best qualities. When she dies (a scene we don’t see until late in the film as a flashback), Darwin withdraws emotionally from his other children and his wife, Emma Jennifer Connelly, Bettany’s real-life wife), slipping into seemingly inconsolable despair. Annie’s loss also causes dissension between Darwin and Emma.

Darwin’s decision to take Annie away in the last days of her illness to his long-term doctor for the “water cure” (hydrotherapy) is one cause of their estrangement. His movement away from Christianity and his wife’s continued devotion to the Anglican Church and its tenets, both as comfort at Anne’s loss and earnestly held belief, provides the other source of estrangement. Darwin’s longtime friendship with the parish priest, Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam), disintegrates over Darwin’s scientific beliefs, growing non-belief in Christianity (specifically an afterlife), and Darwin’s forceful enunciation of those beliefs (and renunciation of Christianity).

With his faith gone under the weight of his theories of evolution and natural selection and, thus, the absence of an afterlife for Annie, Darwin finds it impossible to overcome his grief. Emma attempts to bring Darwin out of his depression by inviting two of his friends and fellow scientists, Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones). Huxley actively encourages Darwin to complete “On the Origin of Species,” foreseeing the monumental paradigm shift in science and culture that will follow publication of Darwin’s book. At one point, Huxley ecstatically declares that Darwin has killed God (or at least the Christian conception of God). Darwin sees not only consequences for himself and his family, but the potentially destabilizing effects on the society his theories might cause.

With its focus on a brief period in Darwin’s life, his inner struggle to overcome his grief physical illness (depicted here as partially psychosomatic), and his self doubts about writing and publishing On the Origin of Species, Creation spends little time explicating his theories on evolution and natural selection, briefly showing Darwin writing while Bettany reads passages from On the Origins of Species in voiceover. Amiel and Collee include several brief flashbacks of Darwin’s five-year voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, where he served as the ship’s naturalist and geologist, primarily to illustrate a story about the acquisition of culture and religion, which Darwin eventually sees as mutable rather than immutable as believers in Christianity might suggest.

"Creation" could have easily descended into TV-movie-of-the-week melodrama (as, for example, "Extraordinary Measures" does), but doesn’t, thanks to John Collee’s ("Happy Feet," "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World") free-form adaptation of Randall Keynes book, "Annie's Box: Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution,""Creation." Collee’s screenplay deftly explores Darwin’s inner turmoil with admirable subtlety. As depicted in "Creation," Darwin’s reticence and natural introspection limits the possibility of exposition or emotion-exposing scenes. The script intertwines Darwin’s physical illness with his inner conflict (e.g., guilt over his daughter’s loss, the loss of religious belief, and the negative consequences that he and his family will face after the publication of “On the Origin of Species”).

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originally posted: 01/22/10 03:07:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/23/12 Les S. Great concept, good acting, poor delivery 3 stars
5/04/11 millersxing wisely separates the man from the myth with the utmost intellectual and emotional integrity 4 stars
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  22-Jan-2010 (PG-13)
  DVD: 29-Jun-2010


  DVD: 29-Jun-2010

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