When Charles Darwin wrote what is one of the most groundbreaking works ever written he was well aware the kind of repercussions it would have. Darwin delayed finishing and publishing On The Origin of Species for years, realising it would shake the very foundations of both science and religion.
Darwin’s theories on natural selection and transmutation explained how species adapted to changing conditions, in other words, how they evolved. The implications were immense: the earth was shown to be much older than a mere few thousand years and the idea of creatures being created in isolation and independently of one another no longer held water. In short, the determinism of the Church in its approach to life and humanity was proven wrong.
Jon Amiel’s film, Creation, is about the life of Darwin (played superbly by Paul Bettany) and his immense personal struggle in writing On The Origin, which was finally published in 1859. Darwin had studied to become a parson and was a firm believer in God when he rejected theology because of a keen interest in plants. He’d had no formal training in botany when he joined the HMS Beagle on a five-year voyage across the world as a researcher, yet, he filled notebook upon notebook with observations, hypotheses and drawings.
The film focuses on Darwin’s relationship with his deeply devout wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and the strain science puts on their marriage. Their relationship is further tested by Darwin’s inability to come to terms with the death of his daughter, Annie (Martha West).
While Amiel demonstrates Darwin’s keen sense of observation through beautifully-crafted close-ups of nature and its life-cycles, some explanation of his theories would have gone a long way to highlighting exactly why they were, and remain, so controversial. Bettany shows his true calibre as the angst-ridden scientist wracked by guilt over the fact that while he may unravel the secrets of life, he cannot preserve it.
The scenes in which Annie’s ghost haunts Darwin are somewhat emotionally ‘overcharged’, resulting in the viewer feeling desensitised after one too many appearances by the apparition. However, I did find myself unashamedly captivated by a scene in which Darwin and an orang-utan reaching out to one another in a mirror of Michelangelo’s painting of God creating Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Creation is about one man’s war, not with God, but with himself. A fellow scientist, congratulated Darwin on his discoveries by saying, “You have killed God, Sir”, which is not at all what Darwin had set out to do. Ironically, Darwin barely mentions the word ‘evolution’ in On The Origin of Species, with the only reference in the very last sentence of the book. For all its faults, the film manages to embody Darwin’s belief that “there is grandeur in this view of life … [and] whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Director: Jon Amiel
Cast: Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones
Rating: 4 out of 5