MOVIE REVIEW: 'Creation' an engrossing look at Charles Darwin's quest

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Giving a movie about Charles Darwin the title "Creation" is a supreme example of artistic irony (or twisted humor) and the first indicator that this film is going to take a lot of chances.

When it was published in 1859, Darwin's book "On the Origin of Species" established itself as the most significant scientific statement of all-time and started a fevered debate that continues to this day. It's unlikely that watching this movie will change the mind of anybody not already subscribing to either the "Creationist" or "Evolutionist" theories, but almost everyone will walk away from it far more enlightened and educated about Darwin the man.

Darwin (Paul Bettany) began researching the material for his book nearly three decades before he wrote it, and the bulk of director Jon Amiel's brilliant film concerns itself not with the author's writings, but rather with the process of scientific discovery and the clash between his personal and professional lives. The closer Darwin got to his final conclusions, the larger the toll it took on every aspect of his being.

Darwin was married to his first cousin Emma (Jennifer Connelly), the mother of their 10 children and a devoutly religious woman. At first, Emma's disapproval of her husband's area of study barely registered, mostly because she never thought it would amount to anything. When it became clear people not sharing her stringent beliefs began pushing her husband to finish his book, Emma brought out the big guns and used religion as a weapon against him.

Already distraught over the heartbreaking death of his daughter Annie (Martha West), Emma's relentless opposition turned the guilt-riddled Darwin into a complete basket case. In addition to his weakened mental state, Darwin developed a string of physical maladies that hindered his work and made him question his own motives.

Based on the book "Annie's Box" by Darwin's great-great-grandson Randal Keynes, John Collee's screenplay steadfastly avoids the crippling trappings usually associated with both biographical and period-piece dramas. Infusing fantasy with a somewhat disorienting out of sequence narrative, Amiel and Collee present the story from Darwin's out-of-body perspective and it is never less than thoroughly engrossing.

Given his fragile health, the pressure folding in on him from all directions and his crushing grief, the vivid hallucinations experienced by Darwin offer excellent contrast to the requisite and stuffier period piece elements. The non-sequential presentation also keeps us guessing as to whether Darwin is interacting with a live Annie, her apparition or a figment of his own imagination.

In its own distinct way, "Creation" extols the mysteries and joys of faith in a manner not unlike that of those exhibited and practiced by devout believers of Creationism. Had Darwin been cynical and soulless and/or an atheist, the "Species" book wouldn't have had nearly the same searing impact or been such a relatively enjoyable read. It is as warm as it is informative.

"Creation" shows what happens when a person's head, heart and spirit collide while in the pursuit of such a gargantuan task no one up until that time could even remotely fathom. "On Origin of the Species" made Charles Darwin a wealthy man and cemented his mythical status, but he paid a heavy price along the way. "Creation" makes it clear this wasn't something Darwin wanted to do, but rather something he had no choice but to do. (Newmarket)