A Fire Within: Charles Darwin Biopic Stays Cold

City Pulse | January 18, 2010
A Fire Within

Charles Darwin Biopic Stays Cold

Creation (Two Stars) (580 words)

By Cole Smithey

As reworked by screenwriter John Collee, Jon Amiel's adaptation of Randal Keynes's novel "Annie's Box" is too driven by melodrama to work as a biopic. On the brink of writing the book "that would kill God" ("The Origin of Species")--which continues to draw fire today—Charles Darwin (meticulously played by Paul Bettany) is greeted by two of his colleagues (played by Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch). The great naturalist's two friends insist that he cure himself of the illness that beleaguers him, and commit his thesis of creation to paper. Bettany's real-life wife Jennifer Connelly plays Darwin's wife Emma. Perhaps attempting to not upstage her husband, Connelly fails to embrace the period acting techniques required for the role. The story moves to the relationship between Darwin and his brilliant daughter Annie (wonderfully played by newcomer Martha West). Capable of charming birds out the trees, Annie is her father's constant companion. Every bit as thrilled about the natural world as her dad and in some ways as knowledgeable, Annie brightens the narrative. Tragedy strikes, but it's poorly set up. Then an ill-conceived flashback sequence breaks the film's linear movement. Paul Bettany carries an otherwise clumsy film thanks to his sheer strength of preparation and passion. Though not especially revealing about Charles Darwin the scientist, "Creation" highlights the power of Paul Bettany doing what he does best, which is to create a character.

Bettany's Darwin is a man so full of inner turmoil that it makes him physically sick. He carries himself with a hunched posture that he uses to deflect from an overbearing world of religious believers that threaten to crush him for the beliefs he holds. At church with his family, Darwin bites his tongue during sermons by their awkward friend and neighbor Reverend Innes (an underused Jeremy Northam).

With the weight of the world upon him, Darwin is an intellectual who takes the utmost solace from his adoring daughter. When Annie is physically punished at school for repeating organic truths her father taught her, Darwin is put at odds with Emma who refuses to let him confront the matter. There's a burning conflict between Darwin and Emma that escalates across the story and yet the relationship remains opaque even as the couple eventually achieve a kind of relationship-saving truce while recovering from a shared tragedy.

We take in Darwin as a respectable patriarch of his community, and a scientist with a phenomenal clarity of vision into the organic world he fervently studies. The filmmakers get closest to mitigating Darwin's weighted social persona with his perceived radical theory of evolution during a brilliant outdoor scene with Reverend Innes in which the scientist drops all pretense of patience for amicability with his rival. But the fire that rages in Darwin is never allowed to rage at its intrinsically dramatic surface. Imaginative camera work from cinematographer Jess Hall provides insight into how Darwin's microscopic vantage point on nature validates his theories. A more rigorous script could have articulated better the raging debate around Darwin's central thesis, that was put forth in short form by another scientist months in advance of Darwin's book. Most glaringly absent is a cogent explanation of Darwin's central thesis. For the man who desperately feared that he would be remembered in the books of history as the person who removed God from social consciousness, there should be more elucidation given to his ideas.
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