It has been said that Charles Darwin was the man who killed God. "Creation" is not a picture that reloads the gun, sharpens the nails, or freshens the noose; it's a sensitive portrait of a controversial figure, meant to strip away over a century of accusation and condemnation, returning Darwin's essence back to its original home of trembling doubt. It's a film open for easy dismissal, but "Creation" is not an anti-religion screed, only an intimate drama of a man who found himself at a crossroads between the answers of science and the comfort of faith. There's no show of teeth, no hateful agenda. "Creation" returns Charles Darwin to his humble origins in the vessel of art-house cinema, allowing the cast and crew to interpret the man through careful thematic consideration and often compelling domestic drama.
With a flurry of scientific ideas buzzing around his head, Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) is having trouble writing a book touching on his theories of evolution. While a devoted family man to wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and his many children, including beloved daughter Annie (Martha West), Charles finds himself slowly degenerating due to illness, which slips into occasional bouts of madness. Faced with extra pressure from publishers urging him to complete his book, titled "On the Origin of Species," Charles fights through his numerous ailments and the disapproval of the local Christian community (Jeremy Northam) to put his science to paper. When Annie becomes gravely ill, Charles finds his faith put to the test, causing a rift in his marriage, which further clouds the purpose of the book.
What's so immediately striking about "Creation" is how even-tempered it is. Perhaps this is caution at play with such a hot-potato subject, but the soft approach to Charles and his contentious work from director Jon Amiel offers more than simple religious histrionics and scientific fervor. "Creation" seems to fear a ruckus will obscure its intent, so it selects a silent path of introspection, studying Charles on the cusp of fame, fighting sickness and uncertainty as he sculpts his life's work. The stillness of the picture is disarming, perhaps even glacial at times, but the tempo finds a purpose to accurately encapsulate the journey Charles was on, where he faced unimaginable displays of mortality and disapproval (his worst fear being the loss of support from devout believer Emma) as the book came together after decades of near-spiritual research.
Though the introduction is convincing, "Creation" is not entirely about "On the Origin of Species." Sure, the picture details the architecture of thought that filled the pages (often sold through surreal imagery), how the topic divided Charles from the community, and how the writing consumed his mind, contributing to his infirmities. However, in the second half of the film, Amiel and the stately screenplay (by John Collee, "Master and Commander") turn their attention to the saga of Annie, and how her catastrophic illness shattered Charles, his marriage (Charles and Emma were first cousins, a fact that kept the scientist forever paranoid about the health of his children), and the very questions posed in the book. Home is the heavenly hand that balances the story, looking to appreciate the temptation of faith, a quest inflated to extreme proportions while knocking on death's door. This stage of Charles's life also reinforces Bettany's commanding performance: a clear-eyed representation of scientific query and familial love, polished with inviting Victorian charms by the actor, who makes "Creation" somewhat exceptional through his stupendous efforts. Connelly isn't offered as much to do, but her role is appropriately supportive, coming alive in the finale as Emma finally voices her opinion on the book and the longevity of her marriage.
The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) feels a touch on the light side, artificially brightened a degree, therefore removing the potency of the cinematography, which often relies on moments of shadow and reflection. Colors are solid, but unremarkable, with skintones retaining their natural bloodless appearance. With the image pushed lighter, black levels are easily controlled, along with any detail, with a few contrast issues bubbling up during the presentation.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix is soft and gentle, keeping with the film's tentative approach. Scoring is terrifically warm and appealing, threading the dramatic movement of the picture with grace, filling the speakers with lush orchestrations. Dialogue exchanges are easily received, melded sharply with the mix. Surround activity is limited to outdoor atmospherics, which limits the range of sonic impression, but it fits the movie's careful steps. While it doesn't push hard, the track supports the emotion of the film beautifully.
English and Spanish subtitles are included.
The feature-length audio commentary from director Jon Amiel is a truly educational experience, as the filmmaker carefully clarifies his inspirations for the picture. Discussing the challenges of representing history, Amiel admits a few personalities were reworked to make specific points, permitting an air of honesty to the track that's refreshing. The director also fills in a few of the gaps found in Darwin's life, explaining many of the props and reactions that might fly over the head of most viewers (myself included). Amiel is a charming, direct speaker, and his effort, while hitting a dead spot here and there, is compelling, opening up a greater understanding of "Creation" with ease.
"The Battle for Charles Darwin" (23:13) is a BBC special hosted by Bettany Hughes, highlighting interviews with the cast and crew (along with author Randal Keynes), who discuss the interpretative challenges of "Creation." Also included is a tour of Darwin's home, which has been turned into a museum.
"Debating Darwin" (14:21) offers three topics about Darwin, debated by Professor Lewis Wolpert (Developmental Biologist at University College in London), Dr. Denis Alexander (Theistic Evolutionist from St. Edmunds College in Cambridge), and Professor Andy McIntosh (Young Earth Creationist from the University of Leeds). The photography is awful, but the arguments are fascinating.
"Digging Deeper into Darwin" (26:32) is a promotional collection of informational nuggets on Darwin and his life, with thoughts and filler between extended film clips provided by Nick Spencer, author of "Darwin and God."
"Pollard on Film on 'Creation'" (5:59) is a brief film review/interview show/promotional tool for the picture.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
Pre-digested thoughts of Charles Darwin and knee-jerk reactions to "Creation" will create more of a tempest of controversy than anything actually in "Creation." The film is evocative, intelligent, poignant, and delivers a good deal of clarity both in the development of "On the Origins of Species" and on the complexities of Charles Darwin the man, who shook the world with scientific theory, yet appeared more comforted by his faith in family.