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Creating Darwin

Creation examines the man behind the theory

Richard P. Grant 21 September 2009

Touching: evolution was not the only passion

It deals with the spirit of Darwin, and does not spend eight years dissecting barnacles

There can be few scientists as simultaneously reviled and as idolized as Charles Darwin. While the formalization of evolutionary theory was an idea whose time had come (through Alfred Russel Wallace if no one else), it is Darwin’s name that is most tightly associated with this linchpin of biology. Any popular treatment, then, of Charles the man is going to attract some serious attention, both from those who revere him and those who hate him. To take an idol and a bogeyman and paint him in human light risks offending both factions.

Before an invited audience at the Science Museum in London (an appropriately iconic venue), director Jon Amiel introduced his unashamedly fictionalized account of Charles' struggle with the loss of his beloved daughter Annie. Amiel said that just as great art shows the 'art behind the art', Creation was conceived with the intention of getting at the 'science behind the science'. The film is an imaginative, not a literal truth; it deals with the spirit of Darwin, and does not spend eight years dissecting barnacles. It is an humanizing treatment: a Genesis.

And that is Creation’s great strength, and what might be seen by many as its weakness. Charles Darwin is no idol, here; no rallying bugle call or battle standard. The portrayal is far from hagiographic: he is a mortal hero. From the initial homage to Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”, through the grief and despair and tragic inevitability of Annie’s death; his love for his wife Emma (played by Jennifer Connelly); all the way to final redemption, this is a gloriously messy and human narrative.

Paul Bettany’s Darwin is immediately likeable, precisely because he is human. He plays with his children; he confronts them with the cruelty and necessity of nature yet comforts them afterwards; he argues with his wife: and we can feel his anger and are enraged on his behalf at the abuse of Annie by the Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam). There are moments of genuine tenderness between Charles and Emma – not surprisingly, perhaps: as a friend remarked to me, it’s a cushy gig where you get paid to kiss your own real-life wife.

Charles’ health deteriorates as he realizes the implications of his own theory. Sleepless and nauseous, he turns in vain to laudanum, and then ‘hydrotherapy’. The viewer is invited to compare the rationality of his science with his ready acquiescence to medical treatments that seem superstitious. (Before we mock, this was state of the art medicine in the mid-19th Century. Today’s most advanced procedures will probably seem equally barbaric in another two hundred years). His illness is tied into his obsession with Annie and failure to finalize his theory. Not even the gazumping of his theory by the laconic Wallace can stimulate him to complete the book. Indeed, in the film he seizes upon this as a perfect excuse not to finish, catapulting him into seizure and a further course of useless treatment. Nor can Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s Bully – played with obvious relish by the splendid Toby Jones – convince him.

But this is not a story about the Theory. Rather, it is about Annie, and an intensely personal look at how her father learned to cope with her death. Annie (Martha West) is with us from the beginning, appearing post mortem to the inconsolable Charles. She is Darwin’s voice of reason: it is Annie who defies the vicar, Annie who says that it’s ‘just a theory’; Annie who encourages him to reach out and grasp the prize that waits. It is only at the end of the film, when Charles finally comes to terms with her death, that he is able to complete On the Origin of Species.

However, it is not just about Annie: Charles must reconcile with his wife. It is only when love conquers fear, when he abdicates the final publication decision in favour of Emma, that he can find peace. It is a tribute to Amiel’s direction that in the scene where we discover what Emma has done with the manuscript, even though we know the answer in advance, there is yet a moment of real doubt.

It is here we understand the nature of faith, and of science. Both are searching for truth. The theory of evolution is only a threat to a straw god. A faith that attempts to fill gaps in scientific knowledge misses the point. And while the likes of Innes and Huxley claim exclusive knowledge of truth for their respective sides, it takes the character of Emma Darwin to enable the two to become one. To make science human.

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Creation opens in UK theaters on 25 September 2009.