Lionsgate // 2009 // 108 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 9th, 2010
How Darwin saw the world and changed it forever.
"Suppose the whole world stopped believing that God had any sort of plan for us?"
Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany, A Beautiful Mind) has spent many years developing and contemplating his theory of evolution. Now he just needs to present the theory in the form of a book, have the book published and celebrate his success. Many of Charles' peers are well aware of his accomplishments long before he's even started work on the book. "Congratulations," one fellow scientist says. "You've killed God."
It's the idea of "killing God" that makes Charles so intensely uncomfortable, as he knows just how much society uses religion to establish civility and morality. He feels that if the general public stops believing in God, they might just stop believing in anything at all and become little more than animals. Even more bothersome is the knowledge that his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly, Dark City) has a particularly intense Christian faith, and he knows how much his scientific suggestions contradict what she believes.
Between his marriage problems, the loss of his young daughter Annie (Martha West), the chastisement he's receiving from the conservative Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam, Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius), and the competition he's facing from others in the scientific community, Charles is beginning to suffer from a mental and physical breakdown. Will he finish his important work? Will he ever find some form of inner peace?
It's stated at the beginning of Creation that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is, "the biggest idea in the history of mankind." A lofty statement, and an odd one considering that Creation doesn't seem to care about Darwin's remarkable idea. While Darwin's theory has proven a massive influence in a wide variety of areas over the course of the last 150 years or so, this film is far more interested in exploring his personal life than in taking a look at what made him such an important figure. Yes, while I realize that marital conflict, physical ailments, tragic death, and intense rivalries represent the stuff that cinematic drama is made of, aren't these things remarkably ordinary in contrast to the story of a man discovering how the entire world functions?
Yes, but we must accept the film on its own terms, and I suppose it works well enough as a drama. The filmmakers do a good job of exploring the central conflict between Charles and Emma Darwin, which fortunately never becomes so simplistic as "God exists!"/"No, he doesn't!"/"Fine, be that way!" Emma does indeed hold firmly to her Christianity, and she has a deep-rooted fear that Charles will be punished for his "blasphemy" and that they will not be permitted to share eternity together. Even so, she's wise enough to understand that her suspicions of Charles' eternal damnation should not lead to his persecution here on earth, so she continues to love him and even supports his work. It's a very touching gesture, and Connelly plays it beautifully. Equally touching is Charles' reluctance to damage or dispute his wife's faith; her peace and contentment are more important to him than his ideas. It's a relationship that wouldn't work for many couples, but eventually Charles and Emma are able to battle through their obstacles and find a contented middle ground.
Though there are other characters of note that pop up here and there (Jeremy Northam's sternly condescending preacher, Toby Jones' smug portrait of Thomas Huxley, Jim Carter's superb work as Darwin's doctor), Charles and Emma are really the only two characters that get much development (or screen time, for that matter). Many scenes are devoted to Charles suffering through hallucinatory evenings, comprised of painful personal memories and troubling scientific discoveries. Bettany plays these scenes with an effective sense of paranoia, offering us a portrait of Charles Darwin as a brilliant yet socially awkward and deeply unhappy man.
The DVD transfer is quite strong, beautifully capturing the spectacular natural images littered throughout the film. Despite these moments of vibrant color, the film mostly has a muted and dour palette, washing everything in light shades of gray. Detail is pretty solid, though flesh tones seem a tad pale at times. Blacks are acceptably deep and shading is respectable. The audio is quite solid, though sound design is understated most of the time. Emphasis is frequently placed on Christopher Young's score, which masterfully generates a blend of the intellectual and the emotional.
The supplemental package is pretty solid, kicking off with a thoughtful and informative commentary courtesy of director Jon Amiel, who informatively addresses some of the subject matter that the film itself probably should have addressed. "The Battle for Charles Darwin" (25 minutes) is an atypically thoughtful making-of featurette, which digs into some of the artistic choices made in the film. "Debating Darwin" (14 minutes) is a bit of intelligent scientific discussion from a variety of experts, while "Digging Deeper Into Darwin" (26 minutes) is a somewhat superficial examination of the man's life. These pieces are all broken up into brief featurettes, but each is so short that I'd just recommend hitting the "play all" button. Finally "Pollard on Film on Creation" (6 minutes) offers a positive review of/promotional piece for the film.
The film has one significant weakness, which is that it never actually manages to give viewers a clear idea of what exactly Darwin's theory is all about. Odds are that if you go onto the street and ask an average person to explain the theory of evolution, you'll either get a blank shrug or something along the lines of, "Monkeys turned into humans, right?" Bearing this in mind (and also bearing in mind that the film was made for the general public and not for, say, biology majors), the film should have clearly established what Darwin believed and what his book meant. Instead, we get vague snippets that never add up to a coherent whole, including a scene in which Darwin describes how "human-like" an ape looked when interacting with a human (actually one of the more emotionally resonant scenes in the film, but not one of the more informative). Random passages from Darwin's writing are generally read over these scenes, but the passages aren't given enough context or set-up to resonate properly with the average viewer.
Finally (and without wanting to start a nasty argument, as these subjects often do), I think it's a shame that the film divides the two sides of the argument into such neat camps. One side believes that God exists and that evolution is a sham, the other side believes that evolution is real and that God is a sham. Considering the vast number of people who (both then and now) believe that both God and evolution can co-exist comfortably, that position should have been represented by at least one character in the film.
Creation isn't the film it ought to be, but it's still worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13