Working from a screenplay by writer John Collee, director Jon Amiel delivers a waterlogged look at Charles Darwin with Creation, a muttenchop enthusiast’s delight that’s part historical drama, part hysterical drama. While the film doesn’t span decades, but instead concentrates on a moretightly prescribed patch of time in Darwin’s life, it still proves true an old maxim regarding cinematic postscripts: the more you feel it necessary to say in pre-end credit crawl text, the less you’ve probably said during the entire rest of your movie’s running time.
Paul Bettany stars as British scientist and author Charles Darwin, a brilliant and deeply emotional man devoted to his religious wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and the rest of his family, but also somewhat increasingly removed from them. Part of that distance stems from a burgeoning conflict between his (flickering) faith and the rooted reason of science, which is driving a wedge between he and a longtime family friend, Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam). Charles and Emma have also lost a child, which has understandably strained their relationship. As his health begins to falter and Thomas Huxley (Infamous‘ Toby Jones), a strident comrade-in-reason, urges him on, Darwin struggles to finish his legendary book On the Origin of Species, which would of course go on to lay the foundation for much of evolutionary biology.
The movie is built around multiple conversations with the deceased Annie (Martha West, above), and then additionally flashes back in time to various stories Darwin relates to her. Collee’s script is based on Annie’s Box, a biography penned by Darwin’s great-great-grandson Randal Keynes using personal letters and diaries of the Darwin family. Perhaps this insider-ish access compromises any sense of independent thinking that would give this project some definition and perspective, it’s hard to definitively say. Regardless, Collee, and by extension Amiel, are so heartily invested in showcasing Darwin’s descent into near-madness, and injecting overwrought emotionalism into their story, that they dip into dream-sequence-within-dream-sequence nonsense, to the detriment of any accrued interest and narrative momentum in Darwin’s scientific research and writing. In so hammering home the guilt Darwin feels over having married and had children with his first cousin, the filmmakers render secondary (perhaps even tertiary, behind interpersonal relationship histrionics) the importance or modern-day relevance of his work.
Consequently, Creation feels slack and inert, its stakes shrunken and collapsed to the point of near-pointlessness. There are certain personal details here (Darwin’s affinity for bracing water therapy, for instance, which provides Amiel with the chance to get a bit arty) that are obviously fascinating to consider as they relate to Darwin’s work. But the film connects the dots in only the most obvious and perfunctory ways. The personal overwhelms any deeper consideration of the professional in Creation; gimmicky, surface-level grieving and hand-wringing gives way to pitched, plaintive and downright grating voiceover narration, and one just knows at some point that Connelly will look beautiful but get all emotional, screaming and crying about how she’s had enough and can’t take it anymore. By the time the movie posits that the impetus for Darwin’s writer’s block being cured is a simple act of coitus, however, well, one could be forgiven for thinking that Creation bears no evidence of evolution in storytelling nuance. (Newmarket, 108 minutes, PG-13)