Who Made This ‘Creation’?

With all the British accents on display, you’d imagine there would be some subtlety. And with a subject like the author of “On the Origin of Species” (a book, I am told, of some importance) and the initial articulations and delineations of the theory of evolution by natural selection, you’d imagine there’d be fewer ghosts. But Jon Amiel’s “Creation” is not the movie you expect it to be.  At times a labyrinthine domestic drama, at other times a ham-fisted allegory of the ongoing (in America, at least) battle between science and Christianity, Amiel’s Charles Darwin biopic is the perfect antonym to Darwin’s work: fleeting moments of interest in a desert of tedious ennui.

For those familiar with Amiel’s oeuvre, “Creation” seems both a departure from and continuation of his former works. All his post-Civil War, plot-turn-a-thon, “Somersby”; his humorless spy farce, “The Man Who Knew Too Little”; and his so-bad-that-it’s-still-bad disaster movie, “The Core,” have in common are forgettable stories and trails of unhappy reviewers. Despite strong performances from the principle characters and a subject loaded with potential, “Creation” is ultimately little more than a languid costume drama.

Rather, a languid costume drama about the eminent British naturalist, Charles Darwin (played by Paul Bettany), and the years leading up to the publishing of his “On the Origin of Species.” Understandably, the film focuses less on the actual writing of the book (the several montages of Darwin writing are evidence enough that an audience shouldn’t be made to endure the writing process), and more on Darwin’s relationship with his (soon to die) eldest daughter, Anne (played to a precocious perfection in both life and afterlife by newcomer Martha West), the various tensions between Darwin and his devoutly religious wife, Emma (played by Jennifer Connelly, Bettany’s real-life wife), and Darwin’s own chronic health problems and spiritual crises.

These elements, in and of themselves, are not necessarily bad. Indeed, the chemistry between Bettany and West is often touching and always compelling, even if it isn’t immediately clear when Anne becomes a ghost because of the narratives shifting temporality. And then the audience is struck with the questions “why is there a ghost in the movie?” and “why is there so much of the ghost in the movie?” The lingering presence of Anne also strains the relationship between Charles and Emma, his wife/cousin. Emma is perpetually afraid for Charles’ soul while suffering through the deaths of Anne and another son, who dies during infancy. Amiel has Darwin comment on his marital woes with, of all people, a 19th century proto-psychiatrist. Darwin on the couch, it turns out, is far from compelling. Then, after the climactic altercation between Charles and Emma, we are treated to the most befuddling love scene of this decade, an impressionistic mélange of candle-lit writhing with the father of Evolution.  This brings us to Darwin himself. Paul Bettany (who you may remember forgetting from movies like “Wimbledon” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”) might be very good in this role. I say “might” because of the ambiguity surrounding Darwin’s illness. Of course, Darwin’s chronic illness is a historical fact, but in “Creation” it presents itself as a mere somatization of Darwin’s intellectual tumult. That is, it is as though Darwin’s internal conflict is displaced onto his outward appearance. Perhaps he isn’t sick, per se, but he seems sick because he’s so torn to pieces over the implications of his theory. Indeed, these are boring, unfulfilling questions to ponder, which is why it would be nice if the film weren’t overwhelmed with them.

Then there’s the real star of the film: Evolution. It would be an understatement to say that the film gives short shrift to the intense conflicts surrounding the theory in its infancy. However, the brief glimpses we do get are satisfying for the fan of 19th century biology. Brief appearances from Darwin’s contemporaries Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker are refreshing. Despite these bright moments, the movie ultimately does a disservice to Darwin’s story by ending just before his book is published. We don’t get to see any of the really interesting consequences of his theory, aside from the damage it does to his marriage (which is unsatisfactorily remedied at the last moment).

The film isn’t all bad, though; I have yet to see the 19th century rendered onscreen so vividly. Amiel develops several remarkably expansive shots in the British countryside and in the few exotic locales brought to life during the stories Darwin tells Anne, the score helps develop the tone in ways that recall the best of modern melodrama, and the period sets are engrossing and well-utilized. Unfortunately, these formal elements are not enough to make the movie worth watching for either the die-hard fan of period pieces or for the die-hard evolutionist.