Spoiler alert! At the end of Creation, Jon Amiel’s biopic about Charles Darwin, the famed scientist decides in 1859, after much hemming and hawing, to publish his landmark evolutionary book On the Origin of Species. If you think such a lede is in jest, then let me make clear that Amiel’s film acts as though this conclusion is actually in doubt, a preposterous pose struck in order to generate a modicum of drama from a tale in which the true focus is not on publishing outcomes but on the inner struggle of its subject.
Based on Randal Keynes’s biography, the story fixates on Darwin’s (Paul Bettany) twin dilemmas: his grief and work-inspired guilt over the death of his beloved oldest daughter Annie (Martha West), and the objections to his research from wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), a devout woman whose faith has amplified since the passing of her first-born. Both of these weigh heavily on Darwin’s conscience as he grapples with the magnitude of his scientific findings, which he rightfully acknowledges, as does everyone from Emma to Toby Jones’s anti-religion revolutionary, will forever rupture fundamental conceptions about life and, thus, radically transform the very nature of human thought. It’s an intellectual theory in direct opposition to the status quo that’s the epicenter of Creation.
Yet despite this obvious fact, Amiel’s film is more or less devoid of debate, a glaring omission considering that the tensions between Charles and Emma form the material’s central undercurrent. Call it timidity in a conservative-attack-dog contemporary culture, or merely fidelity to the era’s spirit of public civility, but the lack of contentious back-and-forths are painfully felt, since without them, there’s little supplementary meat to the proceedings’ bones. When first introduced, Darwin is a woefully stressed shut-in, his stomach pained by anxiety over his work and his mind so wracked by misery over Annie’s lost battle to illness that he now regularly sees and converses with her in hallucinations. Darwin’s turmoil is meant to parallel his research as a real-world example of the difficulties of personal adaptation and evolution. It’s a thread that Amiel refuses to explicitly underline with dim-bulb exposition.
Alas, whereas Big Statement dialogue is, relative to other biopics, quite restrained, his portrait of the man’s efforts to accept and acclimate to a new reality is otherwise mucked up by all manner of directorial flim-flam. The main culprit in this regard are Darwin’s visions of Annie, which quickly prove a taxing contrivance that, while allowing the character to hash out his doubts and confront his demons, brings little to the table that wasn’t already present. It’s a stylistic choice excessively fanciful for material rooted in a celebration of the rational, and one that affords Amiel too many opportunities for neat visual parallels and overwrought slow motion, both of which come into play via clichéd water-shower imagery. Creation‘s consideration of Darwin’s anguish is heartfelt, but its treatment is often corny, not to mention at odds with the otherwise straightforward nature of the material.
While Connelly’s buttoned-up sorrow is a familiar pose for the actress, she wears gloom beautifully, and her sharp features lend Emma a taut severity that nicely clashes with Bettany’s physical frumpiness and psychological disarray. The actor embodies the scientific icon with a compelling blend of warmth, fear, and stubborn intellectual integrity, the latter manifesting itself during conversations with Darwin’s former friend Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam). Amid intrusive and unnecessary time-lapse shots of decaying birds, the plot’s flip-flopping back and forth in time, and his protagonist’s conversations with ghosts, Bettany’s turn, at once multifaceted and never showy, captures both a sense of imposing mental faculties and relatable human emotion. It’s a performance that deserves a better film.