Darwin without his theory?

February 4, 2010

How can a film about Charles Darwin dodge controversy, asks Scott Johnson.

THE LIFE of Charles Darwin has all the elements of an engaging movie--adventure, conflict, insecurity, heartbreak and ultimately victory over entrenched ideas and institutions.

The film Creation takes up some of these issues, portraying Darwin (Paul Bettany) in the years preceding the publication of On the Origin of Species, grappling with his theory and confronting the religious conservatism of his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly).

And yet, director Jon Amiel seems to have found a way to make this story boring. Creation is not a terrible movie--Bettany and Connelly are both fine actors--but the story largely avoids the great conflicts posed by Darwin's ideas and focuses on his personal life. What's left is a drama that is gloomy and erratic.

Initially, the film uses a confusing chronology, moving back and forth through time with little indication of the date beyond Darwin's increasingly fragile hairline. Rather than helping us understand or appreciate the story, we're left confused and alienated.

Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin in Creation
Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin in Creation

There's also some hokey imagery, with Bettany's grief-ridden Darwin being pounded by a baptism of water during a hydrotherapy session and an even sillier image of him touching the finger of an orangutan.

Clearly meant as an allusion to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, its attempts to be at the same time sacrilegious, bittersweet--the animal is dying--and insightful into Darwin's theory clumsily failing at all three.

But the bigger problem is that the story focuses on Darwin's family life almost to the exclusion of his ideas or their challenge to society. Darwin's theory was "the biggest single idea in the history of thought," the opening titles tell us, announcing how important the movie is. But there are precious few examples of those ideas in the film.

There are a few discussions of evolution with fellow scientists, most notably with Thomas Huxley, later dubbed "Darwin's bulldog," who congratulates him for killing God. "Good riddance to the old bugger," Huxley says in a moment of greatly needed humor. There are also a few scenes involving Darwin's alienation from church, but altogether, these scenes are a sideshow.

Review: Movies

Creation, directed by Jon Amiel, starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly.

ULTIMATELY, DARWIN'S struggles are with his religious wife, although even that conflict is not so much about religion as it is about grief for their deceased child. There can be little doubt that this affected both of them deeply, but it's only one aspect of the pressures that Darwin faced and makes for a plodding story.

Instead of a brilliant scientist grappling with big ideas, we get a brooding, sickly madman barely able to put a word on the page, much less capable of revolutionizing biology.

The result is very claustrophobic. For a film about a man who traveled the world and associated with some of the great scientific minds of his day, Creation spends far too much time with Darwin tucked away in his country home, with only an occasional visitor to bring him out of his doldrums. More importantly, this completely avoids the larger conflicts that Darwin faced with the outside world and his own position in it.

Earlier in life, Darwin studied to become a clergyman at Cambridge, where students were required to swear to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion in the Anglican Church, and most of the scholars were ordained priests. He later spent five years on the HMS Beagle, meticulously studying geology and wildlife along the way.

His observations convinced him of the evolution of species and led him to develop the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin spent another 20 years of experimenting and studying in order to improve his theory and gather evidence for it.

This promised to be no easy battle, and the entrenched powers in the Anglican Church and their hangers-on weren't likely to concede easily. But Darwin's painstaking labors and belief in the vast evidence he accumulated gave him the strength to persevere. As Ian Angus writes in the International Socialist Review:

These materialist methods led him to an entirely materialist theory--at a time when materialism wasn't just unpopular in respectable circles, it was considered subversive and politically dangerous. Between 1838 and 1848, while he was first working out his ideas, England was swept by an unprecedented wave of mass actions, political protests and strikes. Radical ideas--materialist, atheistic ideas--were infecting the working class, leading many to expect (or fear) revolutionary change.

The challenge these ideas posed and the potential they had to shake up the scientific community are almost nowhere to be seen in the film. Instead, this whirlwind of experience and ideas that led Darwin to his theory are left as footnotes to an overwrought chamber play.

Amiel describes his approach to making the film in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine:

Feature films don't do abstract ideas so well. It deals with them best when it embeds those ideas in character conflicts. I think any great film that's produced any ideological change, whether it's Inherit the Wind or Z or Salvador, any film that makes a controversial, world-changing statement, they all succeed primarily because they are great drama first...

As for the controversy, I really didn't want to see those awful scenes set in an oak-paneled room with a bunch of guys in black frock coats and big side whiskers standing up and going "No! Outrageous! Shocking! Scandalous!" It seemed unnecessary to do that.

But Inherit the Wind--a dramatization of the Scopes Monkey Trial pitting Creationists against the teaching of evolution--succeeded precisely because it reveled in the battle of ideas. Released in 1960, when the McCarthyite Hollywood blacklist had just barely ended, it is best remembered for a classic scene where Spencer Tracy puts Fredric March's Creationist attorney on the witness stand and forces him to explain who gave birth to Adam and Eve's grandchildren and justify the young age of the earth.

That is a film that lives and breathes ideas, and its characters come to life through them. Unfortunately, Creation avoids this approach and dwells in the misery of the suffering Darwin. The Victorian-era trappings of "frock coats and big side whiskers" remain--it's just the controversial ideas that are gone.

Amiel's previous films include the mediocre thrillers Copycat and Entrapment. His last film was The Core, which featured a plan to detonate nuclear bombs at the center of the Earth in order to save the planet's electromagnetic field.

Unsurprisingly, the film has gained notoriety for its exceptionally bad science. None of this suggests that Amiel is a director interested in grappling with complicated ideas or controversy, historical or contemporary.

"There is grandeur in this view of life," Bettany tells us at the end of the film. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is missing from Creation.

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