Charles Darwin was one of the most profound thinkers of the modern era, with his groundbreaking theory of evolution and idea that rather than being created by God in “his image”, we evolved from monkeys. But who was Charles Darwin and where did he get this radical idea? That’s the story behind Creation, as it explains in the opening titles: “Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”, first published in 1859, has been called the single biggest idea in the history of thought. This is the story of how it came to be written…”
The film opens with Darwin (Paul Bettany) relating a story to his daughter Annie (Martha West) about an expedition to Tierra del Fuego, where three native children were taken by a British naval expedition, taught “Christian manners”, even met the King and Queen when they arrived in London. When they return the children to their homeland, however, they promptly tear off their clothes and return to the savage ways they’re familiar with. Nature, or nurture?
As Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) explains to Darwin early in the film: ”You’ve killed God, Mr. Darwin, and good riddance to the vindictive old bugger”, to which Darwin almost faints, he’s so shocked at being confronted with the blunt implications of his theories. Huxley then entreats Darwin to pull all of his notes together and create a book about his survival of the fittest theories, a book that can be their rallying point to push out the parsons and beetle collectors and turn science into a respectable profession.
Oct 1858, he’s on Laudanum and has an ongoing stomach ache and shaking hands. He experiments with selective breeding of pigeons and is convinced that all breeds come from the common rock pigeon. “nature breeds for health, while humans breed for appearance”. Ultimately, Darwin, for all his brilliance, was a dabbler, and if he hadn’t been pushed, probably would never have published more than sporadic notes and observations.
It’s a fascinating story, and Charles Darwin was unquestionably brilliant, but does his biography form the basis of a good movie? Sadly, the answer is no, not really. Creation feels more like a BBC period costume drama than a full cinematic production, and while it’s well acted and assembled, it’s also not going to engage any but the most dedicated of filmgoers.
The scene where Charles is confronted with the profound implications of his theory ends with wife Emma Darwin (Jennifer Connelly) entreating Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) not to push Charles too hard, as he’s not in the best of health. “He’s a bit like a barnacle himself” Hooker says, and Emma responds “and like a barnacle, if you prise him off, he’ll die.”
Darwin reminisces during a picnic about his time on the H.M.S. Beagle, but we don’t even see an exterior of the ship and all too quickly, it’s back off screen and we’re in picnic listening to people talk, talk, talk. His friends present the two basic theories of the world: either nature lives in harmony and is at peace, or nature is a battlefield and all creatures are at constant war. It’s the latter that Darwin believes and that’s what serves as the basis of theories.
Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) studying while on the HMS Beagle
A fascinating, though not entirely explicable, series of high speed flash forward and backwards views shows us the death -> life -> death cycle, with a finch dying just to feed the creatures of the forest floor. It’s a dream, and we gain the insight of how heavily his theories and views of the world weigh down Darwin. The result? He opens up a chest of notes, articles and clippings and commits to turning it all into a book, the book that ultimately is published as The Origin Of Species.
“What are you so afraid of,” Annie asks, “it’s just a theory.”
“It’s not just a theory, though,” Charles answers, “Suppose the whole world stops believing that God had any sort of plan for us. Nothing mattered, not love, trust, fate, not honor, just brute survival. Apart from everything else, it would break your mother’s heart…”
We learn how Darwin learned to appreciate the innate intelligence and tool making abilities of orangutans through his relationship with Jenny, the first orang brought to the London Zoo from Africa. We don’t learn, however, how it was that he gained access to her cage nor how he could spend weeks studying her without having to earn a living. This is typical of what ails Creation, a lack of exploring why things transpired or from where his radical ideas arose.
Later Annie gets into trouble with Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam), causing Charles to get upset and setting in motion the core conflict of the film, between Darwin and his theories of evolution and Innes and his unshakable faith in God and the divine order of things. This same fight rages today with the so-called intelligent design advocates and the theory of evolution, but, again, there’s a lack of depth to the way this topic is addressed, as if Darwin is possessed by his theories but doesn’t think deeply of them and their implications to people, particularly his troubled and beloved wife.
The illness of his favorite child, Annie, pushes Darwin to the church and then to reject the whims of a cruel and unthinking God when she dies, finally finding the motivation to finish The Origin of Species. Where the film could have offered up some insight, it offers instead Charles explaining to a colleague that “since Annie’s death, Emma has found solace in religion, and I in science.”
The performances are good, the sets are as you would expect from a costume drama, but in the end, Creation doesn’t answer any questions, it just lets events unfold without any attempt to offer anything deeper or more profound. It’s all about “how” without any attempt at “why”, and this will ultimately relegate the film to the “period biopic” bin in the rental store.