By Jeff Reichert
Dir. Jon Amiel, U.K., Newmarket Films
Charles Darwin’s articulation of his theory of evolution by natural selection was less a discovery or invention in the sense that those words are typically used than simply the recognition of a fundamental order in the world we inhabit. The difference is slight, but important: Darwin didn’t build a useful object or stumble upon a new element or continent—he merely looked closely at what was around him, asked “why?” and then proceeded to answer his own question as best he could. It’s telling that the man spent so many years of his life working on a treatise on barnacles; always searching for the great in the small, here was a naturalist attentive to detail, all details, and the elegance in his theory is merely the same elegance that arises when one learns to look carefully at the natural world. Darwin didn’t create anything; he read the signs that were there for all to see and changed everything.
It’s ironic, then, that Jon Amiel’s (Entrapment, Sommersby) biopic concerning the fraught period of Darwin’s life leading up to the publication of On the Origin of Species is saddled with the title Creation. Surely meant to be provocative, its monumentality doesn’t befit the humble scientist, and surely doesn’t fit the book itself, whose conclusions didn’t so much displace the idea of a creating God, but merely offered an alternative possible involvement for a Godlike figure in the evolution of the natural order. Darwin was nothing if not careful, and in his concluding chapters, after building on mounds of eminently sensible evidence (his first chapter, discussing how humans breed animals for acquired characteristics is a marvelous misdirect; so obvious as to be indisputable, he uses husbandry to funnel readers into belief in the explosion of ideas and hypotheses that follow), he suggests simply that perhaps God hadn’t created each species individually, but rather created an organized system with rules, actions, and reactions that could be open to scientific study. How Darwin’s beliefs evolved after Origin is another story, but his thinking during the period suggests something far different than the wracked torment of Amiel’s melodrama.
Sadly, the entrance into the world of perhaps the most important text since the Bible is dramatized cinematically with all the subtlety and agility of a sledgehammer. A gaunt, haunted Paul Bettany—a dead ringer for the young Charles—is paired with his real-life wife Jennifer Connelly as Emma Darwin. At the film's open in the late 1850s, the Darwin clan is besieged: by Charles’s inability to move on from the death of his beloved daughter Annie years earlier, by the frosty conditions that have set in between patriarch and matriarch, by Charles’s inability to put some kind of order to the ideas that set him so far outside the prevailing thinking of that more religious day and at further odds with his devout wife. In a distilled form, the facts are all true: Annie, the favored daughter, had died at the beginning of the decade after a period of long illness; Darwin had articulated his ideas around natural selection in chrysalis form in a series of papers and journals written years before the 1859 publication of Origin and had been exhorted by various thinkers of the day to get his work released sooner; Emma remained religious throughout her life even as her beloved husband moved further and further away from traditional Christianity. The problem with Amiel’s film (and John Collee’s screenplay) is that it presupposes a simplistic causal relationship between all these events and posits Annie’s death as the crucial crisis of faith that pushed Charles further from Emma and rendered him too grief-stricken to finish his necessary work.
It’s a nice theory, if one enjoys reducing the human experience down to easily swallowed bromides. That Charles’s research had led him to question theism well before he and Emma ever married is of no interest to a contraption such as this; Amiel needs turning points and drama, incidents to help movie the story he chooses to tell along. This is obviously the case in any such attempt to deal with human life in cinematic terms, yet highly narrativized approaches which bend biographical time like putty reveal the paucity of their aims especially when set against something like Pialat’s Van Gogh, also obviously the result of choices and exclusions, but a film which settles into a brief period of a man’s life (here the month leading up to the painting of “Wheatfield with Crows” and the painter's following suicide), allowing us into a less mediated, experiential relationship with the subject. Pialat selects and presents details to us humbly, unadorned (like Darwin) and asks us to draw our own conclusions; Amiel railroads us through. Consider the climax, in which a sickened Darwin (he struggled with health problems and nervous disorders throughout his life), while undergoing treatment at a sanitarium, travels back to the boarding house where Annie died. Editing forces past and present to commingle, and once Charles has been able to narratively expunge himself of grief over the girl’s death, he returns home, immediately reconnects with Emma and commences his major work. It’s all just too easy.
Worse still are the attempts to shoehorn “the big picture” of evolutionary theory into Creation, when Origin itself determinedly avoided issues like human evolution or the radical atheism now espoused by Darwin acolytes like the boorish Richard Dawkins. Scenes of Darwin communing with apes (reconstituted into a laughable take on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel creation panel for the film’s poster) have no real place here, and that they’re thrown into an ungainly structure that jumps freely and confusingly between different periods of Darwin’s life (including a head-slappingly racist flashback to the HMS Beagle journey) again suggests that the agenda in Creation isn’t really the truth of Darwin’s life, but rather an assertion of Amiel and Collee’s beliefs about evolution and religion. On the Origin of Species needed a real talent to tackle it—perhaps Malick’s upcoming Tree of Life will be the proper treatment of Darwin’s core ideas. I think Charles himself would agree that Darwin the man is beside the point. Even in his landmark text Darwin only very humbly suggests at his conclusion that “there is grandeur in this [his] view of life”; there’s nothing like that in Creation, only confused, muddled grandstanding.