Page 14, 25th September 2009

25th September 2009
Page 14
Page 14, 25th September 2009 — A sickly Darwin crushed by grief

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A sickly Darwin crushed by grief

FILM REVIEW Andrew M Brown

At the beginning of Jon Amiel’s Creation the onscreen blurb declares Darwin’s theory of evolution to be “the biggest single idea in the history of thought”, but the film shows that a single event mattered to Charles Darwin more than any of his scientific discoveries – the death at 10 of his beloved eldest daughter, Annie. After seeing Annie’s seemingly arbitrary and undeserved suffering, he finds he can no longer believe in a benevolent deity. He still attends church but cannot bring himself to join the congregation in “All Things Bright and Beautiful” with its intelligent design subtext.

The director and the writer, John Collee – who based his screenplay on the book Annie’s Box by Darwin’s great-great-grandson Randall Keynes – want us, I think, to see Darwin’s loss of faith as primarily emotional in origin. His scientific discoveries look like a secondary motive. You feel that, far from being a militant atheist, he is trying to resist the conclusions to which his work propels him. His friend Thomas Huxley, played by Toby Jones as a kind of bullying toad, is much more fierce and Dawkins-like than Darwin (Paul Bettany) is. Huxley frankly says that science is at war with religion. “You’ve killed God,” he growls at Darwin. “You’ve killed God, sir. And I for one say good riddance to the vindictive old bugger.” The movie works as a study of grief. Amiel alludes to the science – scenes of pigeons being boiled and dissected, for instance, in Darwin’s breeding shed – but assumes we know the history and weren’t educated by creationists. Anyone who didn’t already know the meaning of “evolution”, “variation” and “natural selection” would be scarcely the wiser after watching this. Possibly this refusal to spoon-feed is one of the reasons Creation had trouble finding a distributor in the US, where creationism is taught as truth in some schools – that, and the fact that fanatical Protestants over there detest Darwin. Can it be true that this gentle film is “too controversial” for our American cousins? The Christian website has called Darwin “a racist, a bigot and an 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder”.

Perhaps they confuse Darwin with his modern-day followers. Paul Bettany’s Darwin is a benign and tolerant figure. He is sickly, from overwork and grief combined, with a waxen face, constantly in pain or stirring a draught of some brown medicine. It’s not clear exactly what ails him, but to cure it he resorts to drastic water treatment with a hydro-therapist (Bill Paterson) in Malvern which involves him sitting underneath a pummelling deluge of water. Annie (angelic Martha West, daughter of Dominic, the star of The Wire) received the same treatment for her illness. Darwin is a tortured soul, of romantic cast, with a prominent brow suggestive of genius; he’s so languorous at times it’s hard to see how he got all that work done. The performances are very good and the film is highly watchable. Bettany shows the way anguish afflicts Darwin because he fears his theories will rob his wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), of the consolation that little Annie is in heaven with the angels. Two scenes are especially affecting: the death of Annie and the death of Jenny, a chimpanzee at London Zoo which Darwin studied. Amiel juxtaposes them as if to remind us of our affinity with our closest relations.

Connelly, married to Bettany, is the actress with luminous green eyes and an intelligent, dignified face who played an addict in Requiem for a Dream and mathematician John Nash’s wife in A Beautiful Mind (which won her the Oscar). She conveys Emma’s internal conflict: she’s wholly devout, faithful to the teachings promulgated at church by the Rev Innes (Jeremy Northam), and so feels threatened by the book her husband is working on. Darwin’s work separates the couple – at least to begin with. You feel Emma’s love for Charles will win out.

Moreover, the prolonged grief Darwin feels for his most-loved child, presented as part of his unspecified pathology, cuts out the rest of the family – at least three other children, with Emma expecting another. The film dramatises a private, exclusive relationship between Darwin and Annie both before and after her death. When she’s alive we see the scientist, through flashbacks, telling her stories about foreign voyages, always teaching her things. Even when she’s a baby he’s making notes on the way her hand grips or how she listens to a rattle. Amiel interweaves these flashbacks with scenes in which Annie reappears to her father after death as a ghost or, perhaps, a hallucination. The chopping back and forth is confusing at times. Darwin, in modern jargon, has not “let go”. Not until he does this can he finish the book and rejoin the rest of his family.

The cinematographer, Jess Hall, calls up glorious images of verdant countryside warmed by sunshine and scenes of wildlife that resemble an old-fashioned nature film. Darwin, despite his theories, cannot help attributing purpose to nature – a cruel purpose. Nature, for him, is a battlefield. On a woodland walk with the children he watches a fox tearing into a rabbit, just yards away – a touch of artistic licence surely, unless wild animals were much less frightened of people in those days.

I wouldn’t be surprised if what prompted those American distributors to turn up their noses at Creation was its serious tone and absence of light relief. These features might be as off-putting from a commercial point of view as any ideological content. For myself, I find tremendous consolation in thinking that by focusing on Darwin the man, his humility, rather than banging on about the science, it might irritate Richard Dawkins.

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