The new biopic of Charles Darwin, Creation, is loaded with potential for major drama, even apart from the fact that the scientist’s ideas on evolution still provoke, 150 years after On the Origin of Species was published. (Producer Jeremy Thomas told the UK’s Telegraph that he was amazed that as of this fall the film had no stateside distributor because of its content -- and the contention going on about Creation on US Christian Web sites: “That’s what we’re up against. In 2009. It’s amazing.”) Based on Annie’s Box, a book by Darwin’s great-great-grandson Randal Keynes, Creation is undergirded with yet another, albeit less sensational notion: Keynes theorizes that the naturalist was forever tormented by the 1851 death of his favorite daughter Annie. Add to that wrinkle the widely known fact that Origin of Species promised to forever change if not sever Darwin’s relationship with his deeply religious wife Emma -- and you have something of a possible sensation.
Unfortunately that promise -- supported by intense, heartfelt performances by Paul Bettany as the gentleman scientist and real-life spouse Jennifer Connelly as Emma -- is blunted by the multitude of quasi-red-herring fantasy and hallucination sequences, a muddled narrative structure and a script that fails to rise to the occasion when taxed too greatly.
To director Jon Amiel’s credit, we enter Creation, deep in the thicket of Darwin’s sensibility: he’s telling Annie (Martha West) the story of two Tierra del Fuego native children who are taken away to England, “civilized” and briefly indoctrinated with Christian values. The children immediately throw off their Western garb when they return home, reinforcing Darwin’s budding ideas about humans and animals. Seemingly estranged from his wife and his other children, the scientist appears to be as deeply enthralled with his bright and curious daughter as his studies of barnacles and birds. Various mysterious illnesses, laudanum-induced hallucinations, and alternative therapies seem to send Darwin even more deeply into his own semi-nightmarish isolation, despite the offers of friendship from his reverend (Jeremy Northam) and the intellectual support of biologist Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones).
Alas, the cumbersome and confusing structure of Creation -- the story of Darwin’s relationship with his wife clutters the narrative further, rather than deepening it -- soon overwhelms any interest one might have had in Darwin’s theories or the man himself, who Bettany invests with a winning, almost whimsically boyish quality. Here, the actor’s emotions skate lightly and endearingly over his pale features -- a contrast to a real-life Darwin that some have viewed as a frumpier, more stolid sort. By the time Creation gets to its climactic confessional scene between husband and wife -- one more redolent of a 20th-century spouses in the throes of couple’s therapy than a proper Victorian pair -- even the most determined scientist might be driven to break a beaker.
Creation screens at Embarcadero, 1 Embarcadero Center, SF, and Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. www.landmarktheatres.com