Film review: Creation

Tim Birkhead witnesses Darwin’s anguish as he struggles with personal conflict and loss and the weight of the world’s most powerful idea

October 2, 2009

“All things bright and beautiful…, the Lord God made them all,” the congregation sings. All except Darwin. Gagging and gasping, he staggers from the church unable to hide his horror at the hypocrisy. Stop. Fast-forward to the Sandwalk, his “thinking path” at Down House, where Darwin is with his friends Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley. “You’ve killed God, Sir!” says Huxley, rubbing his hands with glee. “You have to publish!”

This extraordinary and emotive film focuses on the anguish in Darwin’s life. Anguish over his conflict with his beloved wife, Emma, and her religious belief, anguish over the devastating loss of his even-more-beloved daughter Annie, and anguish over the impact he knows his ideas will have on the deeply religious society of mid-Victorian Britain.

Creation, which is based on Randal Keynes’ wonderful book Annie’s Box (2001), portrays Darwin’s pre-Origin life, mainly at Down but with occasional backward glances to Tierra del Fuego, Captain Fitzroy and the Beagle. Paul Bettany plays Darwin, with Jennifer Connelly as Emma, Benedict Cumberbatch as Hooker and Toby Jones as a somewhat diminutive Huxley. The acting is good, the attention to detail superb and the imagery exhilarating.

But I was shocked. I’ve read Annie’s Box and the masterly Darwin biographies by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, and by Janet Browne; I’ve subscribed to the Correspondence (sad geek I may be, but it is wonderful – like hacking into the emails of a genius), but yes, my perceptions of Darwin were shaken – by the magnitude of Darwin’s trauma and by the raised voices between him and Emma. Perhaps because they are married in real life, Bettany and Connelly scrapped a little too realistically. Everything I had read led me to think that Charles and Emma conducted themselves with great dignity, avoiding overt conflict at all costs and, where conflict was unavoidable, writing to each other instead. Emma here was a tough cookie, almost severe and almost dominant over her anxious, stressed-out, retching partner. Good cinema, perhaps, but I doubt the reality was quite like this.

At the centre of the film is Annie, Charles and Emma’s second child – and his favourite. She is played by the superbly cast Martha West, who delivers an exceptional performance. With the most extraordinary charisma, she eclipses both parents. All-wise, perceptive, charming, loving, vulnerable and, eventually, lost at the age of ten, Annie is the love of Darwin’s life. Her loss, probably through tuberculosis, in 1851, is devastating.

As her health deteriorates, Darwin takes Annie to Dr Gulley’s quack-hydrotherapy centre at Malvern, where he had found some relief from his own (largely psychological) symptoms, leaving a heavily pregnant Emma at home with the rest of the family. Reading in the Correspondence those desperately sad and deeply intimate letters that passed between Charles and Emma as Annie declines and dies brings tears to my eyes. Seen on screen, this dreadful episode – if I can call it this – is even more vividly painful.

What kind of God would inflict such suffering on a ten-year-old child? And how, Darwin asked himself, could Emma continue to believe in God after this? Distraught but consoled by the thought that she will eventually be reunited with Annie in Heaven, Emma keeps the memory of her daughter alive through a collection of keepsakes – Annie’s box. Darwin, holding no such thoughts of an afterlife, wrote a memoir of his daughter, which was later described as the most beautiful and intensely emotional piece he would ever write.

After Annie’s death, Darwin returns to the godless world of natural selection. When Alfred Russel Wallace’s essay on the same topic arrives in early 1858, Darwin is spurred into action to write an abstract of his big idea – which was laid out in full in On the Origin of the Species. Much of the detail is passed over swiftly in the film, with no mention, for example, of the joint presentation of Darwin and Wallace’s idea at the Linnean Society some 15 months before Origin’s publication. Instead, we see Emma sitting up all night reading Charles’ manuscript, eventually giving it and him her blessing – despite her religious convictions – and Darwin placing the precious package on the post cart. And that’s where the film ends.

In a rerun of the very controversy that ate away at Charles and Emma, Creation has apparently struggled to find a distributor in the US – a place of pandemic ignorance where only one third of the population believes in evolution.

This film is a vision of a scientist torn apart by the monumental nature of his idea. It makes Darwin human, although he could have been made warmer and less crazy, and I’d have liked Emma better had she been less abrasive.

The cinema where I watched Creation was almost empty: poor publicity indeed for a film about the most powerful idea ever – I hadn’t even heard about the film until the day before. The box office must then have wondered what on earth was happening when my entire class of third-year history of science students turned up in the following days. Their reactions, knowing rather little of Darwin’s life, I suspect, will be interesting, and I’ll tell you what they thought of it next week.

Creation – an undergraduate view

Most of my third-year history and philosophy of science students liked the film and considered it powerful and emotional. One described it as “fantastic and a real insight into Darwin’s life”. Another said that it “made Darwin come to life, and more human than textbooks show”. For another student, Creation was “harrowing and eye-opening”, but one member of the group felt it was too “simplistic and more like a BBC documentary”.

One undergraduate said that the film focused too much on Annie and not enough on the biology. Another voiced a similar opinion and was “unsurprised by the lack of science and disappointed by the sensationalism for popular consumption”. Finally, one asked why science and religion should be mutually exclusive.

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