What happens when a world-renowned scientist, crushed by the loss of his eldest daughter, conceives a book which will prove the non-existence of God. This is the story of Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and his master-work 'The Origin of Species'. It tells of a global revolution played out the confines of a small English village; a passionate marriage torn apart by the most dangerous idea in history; and a theory saved from extinction by the logic of a child.
Paul Bettany is a talented, charismatic actor but he should consider firing his agent or getting better advice on which roles to accept after starring in the back-to-back critical and commercial duds Creation and Legion.
In the latter, he was woefully miscast as a guardian angel sent to Earth to save mankind. In the former, he looks more comfortable and convincing as Charles Darwin, the 19th Century scientist who overcame illness and personal tragedy to publish his then-revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection.
But Creation was released in the U.S in January and earned a dismal $340,000 after bombing in the UK in September 2009, so it’s taken a while to reach our shores. To be fair, Bettany’s performance isn’t the main reason why this historical drama is such a lugubrious and ponderous exercise. The chief culprits are a laboured, poorly structured script by Aussie John Collee (who gave Bettany much better material to work with in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World); the hackneyed device of having Darwin interact with the ghost of his dead daughter; and Jon Amiel’s heavy-handed direction.
The over-use of flashbacks (I counted at least 14 time-shifts) renders the film fragmented, impedes the narrative flow and acts as a brake on the dramatic tension. You can tell each era from Bettany’s hair length, which progressively thins, as he looks increasingly haggard and his illness-racked body begins to shake.
The screenplay is based on the book Annie's Box by Randal Keynes, a great-great grandson of Darwin, which details the scientist’s heroic efforts over many years to complete On the Origin of Species in 1859, which the film hails as 'the biggest single idea in the history of thought."
The heart of the story is Darwin’s relationships with his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly, Bettany’s real-life spouse) and with their daughter Annie (newcomer Martha West) whose death at the age of 10 threatens to tear their lives apart. The Darwins had 10 kids (although the film is hazy on the number; sprogs keep appearing), three of whom died. As first cousins, the couple feared their children may be genetically susceptible to poor health. Annie was clearly her dad’s favourite.
The narrative bogs down with a lot of dull, boring chat about evolution vs. religion involving Darwin and fellow scientists Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) and Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cummerbatch) and his friend Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam), who spouts clichés such as 'The Lord works in mysterious ways."
Family outings in which Darwin explains how the strata of rocks was created, and how a fox catching a rabbit demonstrates the survival-of-the-fittest instinct, are needlessly drawn out.
There are a handful of poignant scenes including Darwin relating to Annie a sad story about Jenny, an orangutan at the London Zoo; Darwin pleading with a God he doesn’t believe in to take him and spare his daughter; Annie’s lingering illness and demise; and a subsequent confrontation between husband and wife when Emma says their dead daughter is 'more real to you than we are."
Bettany effectively conveys his character’s emotional and physical anguish, but all that angst becomes wearisome. Connelly mostly looks grave and worried and is rarely permitted to show tenderness and love. As Annie, West looks rather too modern to be a child of the 1800s.
Amiel maintains a mostly funereal tone, reinforced by the string-centric orchestral score, leavened by a few moments of happiness. The director’s once sure commercial touch seems to have deserted him as his previous film was the 2003 sci-fi disaster The Core.