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Case Number 17913: Small Claims Court

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Darwin's Darkest Hour

National Geographic // 2009 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 16th, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Clark Douglas was naturally selected to review this disc.

The Charge

The compelling human story behind the publication of one of history's most influential theories.

The Case

November 24th, 2009, marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's groundbreaking book, On the Origin of Species. The event has been marked by the production of a number of new television specials, films and books. One of the more noteworthy items on this list is the made-for-television film Darwin's Darkest Hour, produced by National Geographic. While some may regard the film as slightly stale, from a purely dramatic standpoint, it works quite well as edutainment.

As our story begins, Charles Darwin (Henry Ian Cusick, Lost) receives a letter from a colleague named Alfred Wallace. The letter contains what Wallace claims are his own scientific theories on a variety of subjects. The only problem is that the theories are almost exact replicas of the theories Darwin has been formulating over the course of the last 20 years. Unfortunately, during all of that time Darwin never got around to publishing his ideas in some official form. If he doesn't think of something quickly, his work is going to be "scooped" and he will never receive the credit for his brilliant theories. To make matters even worse, one of Darwin's children has grown ill with scarlet fever, and it's looking less and less likely that the child will survive.

Though the framework of the film takes place during that challenging time in Darwin's life just before the publication of his book, much of the running time is occupied by a series of flashbacks. We watch as Darwin engages in arguments with his father over what his career should be, we watch him engage in ethical debates with religious individuals who do not believe that science should ever be permitted to challenge what is stated in the bible, we see his eyes light up as he makes one exciting discovery after another, and so on. Along the way, the film not-so-subtly incorporates a wide variety of historical facts about Darwin, nature, and the theory of evolution.

The manner in which these flashbacks are presented is particularly amusing. They spring forth from a series of lengthy conversations between Charles and his wife Emma (Frances O'Connor, Mansfield Park). The amusing thing is that Charles speaks to Emma in the sort of manner that someone might speak to a person they are only mildly acquainted with. He recounts the stories of his past in a very accessible and elaborate manner, primarily telling her things that she most assuredly knows already. Still, the audience must be told these things, so poor Emma must sit and listen. That's the most obvious indication that the film was produced by National Geographic, as it's far more concerned with sharing historical facts than in creating an effective and believable dramatic experience.

Not that the film is bad by any means, but the dramatic material has a tendency to be blandly surface-level at best. The performances by Cusick and O'Connor are adequate, but they suffer slightly from being laughably overwritten. A better film might have conveyed what Charles and Emma were feeling organically as a dramatic story unfolded, but this film takes the much less refined approach of having the characters simply tell us everything they are thinking and feeling at all times. If someone is feeling great pain, there is a very strong possibility that they are simply going to declare, "I am in great pain right now." Both actors are thoroughly capable professionals, but this film isn't exactly the best demonstration of their talents.

Even so, I can't say I disliked the film, because it does actually work if you regard it as a dramatized documentary of sorts. There certainly is a lot of intriguing information dispensed throughout the proceedings, and the moments in which Darwin excitedly explains his theories as we watch stunning nature footage (National Geographic certainly relies on their never-ending supply of awesome stock footage in this film) are genuinely exhilarating. I wondered how Darwin's Darkest Hour would play against Jon Amiel's Darwin biopic Creation (still unseen by me as of the writing of this review), which supposedly takes a more cinematic approach to the same story.

The transfer is perfectly respectable, though there are a couple of minor concerns. Background detail is slightly lacking at times, and on occasion flesh tones seem a bit too reddish. There's also some minor black crush during the darker scenes. Otherwise, things look pretty good. The nature footage is exceptionally spectacular, even moreso than the original dramatic material. The color palette contrasts nicely, as the expedition scenes benefit from brightly vibrant colors while the more turbulent domestic scenes are presented in muted shades of brown, black, and gray. Audio is perfectly fine. Sound design is fairly minimal throughout, dialogue is crisp and clear, and the slightly mournful original score (written by A Nightmare on Elm Street composer Charles Bernstein, of all people!) comes through quite nicely. The track is a surround mix, but it's awfully front-heavy much of the time. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette and a short little bonus nature program called "Assignment: Galapagos."

Though rather lacking in the usual qualities one wants from a film, as an engaging presentation of historical facts Darwin's Darkest Hour functions quite nicely.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: National Geographic
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Historical
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurette
• Bonus Short Film


• IMDb

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