So my wife and I toddled along to our local cinema last night to watch Creation, the Darwin biopic loosely based on Randal Keynes’ book, Annie’s Box. What did I think? Bottom line: I liked it.
There were some great performances, not least from Paul Bettany as Darwin, Jennifer Connelly as Emma, and Martha West as Annie. Jeremy Northam played Reverend Innes, the local vicar, whose friendship with Darwin is stretched to breaking point by his developing ideas about evolution. Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Thomas Henry Huxley (Toby Jones) also make brief appearances, the latter being assigned the role of a proto-Dawkinsian egging on a reluctant Darwin to strike the death blow to God. (It should be noted that there is some blasphemy in this scene).
The cinematography is beautiful, capturing the English countryside in its various moods. However, a melancholy air predominates. The exteriors of Down House are obviously not Down House (Danes House in Hertfordshire, apparently), although the overall “feel” seems right.
No doubt others better informed than I will debate the accuracy of the historical details and character portraits but, like an impressionistic painting, the major elements were in place as far as I could tell. This is a moving portrayal of a man tormented by the tragic loss of his beloved daughter and the impact of his ideas upon religious belief, not least that of his own wife. Darwin’s grief over the loss of Annie is highlighted by a series of fantastical dialogues with the looming shade of his dead daughter. I know that’s come in for some criticism, but I thought it worked well as a dramatic device. The story of Annie’s gradual decline is retold through flashbacks to scenes from earlier, and initially happier, days together as a family.
Darwin’s own ill health features largely throughout, the subtext being that it was at least partly stress related. Interestingly, Darwin the arch-rationalist is taken to task in one scene by a visiting doctor for his irrational belief in the benefits of hydrotherapy. Significantly, Darwin’s inability to reconcile the death and suffering that he observed all around him with a benevolent Creator comes across very forcefully, as does the inability of the Victorian church, committed to Paleyan natural theology, to offer him any satisfying answers.
However, one word of caution: if you expect this film to explain the various strands of evidence that eventually led Darwin to his theory, you will probably be disappointed. Although the opening captions proclaim that this is the story of how the Origin of Species came to be written, and despite the fact that some of Darwin’s scientific ideas are cleverly woven into the narrative, this isn’t really a story about his intellectual journey. Instead, this is a story about life, love and loss – the passion for life of a man who yearned to understand the wonders of the world around him, the love of a man for his wife and family, and the tragic loss of a beloved daughter and faith in a Creator God. It’s a very sympathetic and human portrayal and worth catching if you have the opportunity.
Creation is currently touring cinemas in the UK and comes to the USA in December.