"Tell me a story," pleads Charles Darwin's daughter Annie, in the opening scene of Jon Amiel's biopic Creation. "What about?" he asks. "Everything," she replies. In many ways, that's exactly what the naturalist writer did with his seminal 1859 book On the Origin of Species; many of his conclusions contradicted the basic tenets of Christian faith, which is why his theories remain controversial to this very day. Creation is not the kind of anti-Christian tract that some might expect; it is more interested in the man than in taking on his enemies.
The narrative focuses on the years leading up to the publication of the book, as Darwin (Paul Bettany) and his wife Emma (his real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly) have radically differing reactions to the death of Annie, their eldest daughter--Emma strengthens herself with her faith, while Charles plunges into a crisis of conscience that manifests itself in both physical and psychological sickness. He is being pushed, and hard, by Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) to publish his theories and findings, which they believe will effectively puncture the hold of religion across their country (and the world); Darwin is not so eager to stir up the stew of contention within his church and his home.
Based on Randal Keynes' biography Annie's Box, Creation is a high-minded and intelligent picture, and its conversations about science and religion touch on some invigorating and fundamental questions, articulating a debate that rages on still. But John Colleee's screenplay adaptation too often stops cold for those scenes, rather than weaving them into the fabric of the story. Darwin's inner turmoil is more effectively conveyed, as his questioning of (and impatience with) his own faith drives him further into sickness and (perhaps) madness; the scenes of his reaction to the strict, religious school's punishment of Annie's opposure, and his subsequent discomfort during a subtly combative church service, are equally telling and compelling.
Bettany is an actor who seldom makes much of an impression on me, but he's mighty good here, shouldering Darwin's tremendous intelligence as an unfortunate burden and seizing on his interactions with loved ones as the keys to the character. His marital relationship is well-defined and intriguing as well; Emma (well-played by Connelly) is given a strength and strong will that is admirable without being anachronistic. The narrative mines the real pain and suffering of their loss, and seems to understand how it affected them differently--and erected something of a wall between them. Those two actors have the bulk of the screen time; Jones is underutilized, though his brief scenes are welcome ("You've killed God, sir!" he tells Darwin, cheerily).
Amiel is a director whose filmography is spotty at best (his previous features include Copycat, Enrapment, and The Core), and Creation isn't always smooth sailing; its structural tics take some getting used to, and some of it is arid dry. But it is a smart and honorable film about an important and, strangely, timely subject; indeed, Darwin remains so controversial in the United States that there was some concern that the film wouldn't find American distribution (it was ultimately picked up by NewMarket, a smaller distributor which, amusingly, found its greatest financial success with The Passion of the Christ). It certainly bogs itself down in spots, but much of it is brought off admirably, and with considerable heart and intelligence.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.