(by Dustin Putman
"You killed God, sir," biologist Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) tells emotionally plagued friend Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) early on in "Creation." He may be somewhat overstating the matter, but Darwin's scientific theory of evolution—that all living species have developed over time from common ancestors—does put a snarl in the Christian religion and the teachings of the Bible. It's a devastating truth that Darwin himself can hardly bear to face, and yet it is one that he knows in his heart he must relay to the world at large. Ever the supporter, Huxley demands that Darwin finally put pen to paper and write what he has learned. The result was 1859's groundbreaking book "The Origin of Species," sold out on the day of its release and proven to this day to be filled with far more fact than fiction. Article continues below
Primarily detailing a year within the life of Charles Darwin, leading up to the completion of "The Origin of Species," the film sheds an illuminating, if centralized, light on a man that most people probably know little about outside of his argument on evolution. Though a more expansive biography could have been made on Darwin, his history, and the details involving his ultimate breakthrough on the topic, screenwriter John Collee (2006's "Happy Feet") instead focuses on familial drama and Darwin's interpersonal battle with himself. While eldest child Annie (Martha West) adores her father, clinging to his every word while adopting a wise-beyond-her-years outlook on life, wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) is cautious of his findings and unable to let go of a religion she has held sacred all her life. As Charles slips further away from his belief in God and delves deeper into his writing project, the stress takes a mental toll on him and his marriage. Ultimately, though, it is out of an unforeseen tragedy, his very acceptance of what he writes, and his realization of the things in life he cannot change that pulls him out of the abyss.
Handsomely directed by Jon Amiel (2003's "The Core"), "Creation" is both fascinating and emotionally affecting, a period piece without the stuffiness. With a narrative that keeps moving and quietly unveiling true-life revelations—one key aspect of Charles' and Emma's relationship comes to fruition late in the picture and adds further depth to the turmoil they are facing—there is no chance of the plot becoming rote or stilted. Furthermore, Amiel, with the aid of cinematographer Jess Hall's (2007's "Hot Fuzz") lush lensing in England and Thailand, brings visual scope to the proceedings through Charles' telling of stories to his children, most of them taken from his experiences voyaging the world as a young geologist. One of them, tying the vulnerable traits and actions of a dying chimpanzee to that of a human, makes for the film's most moving and indelible passage. Evolution may discount physical creationism, but where did a person's or animal's soul come from if not from some higher power? The fragility of life and the mysteries of death remain constant.
In a relatively small ensemble, real-life married couple Paul Bettany (2009's "Inkheart") and Jennifer Connelly (2009's "He's Just Not That Into You") are a formidable pairing as Charles and Emma Darwin, their roles feeling lived in rather than portrayed. Indisputably brilliant yet fallible in his own life, Charles is in many way torn by his different sides—warm and caring family man, serious and contemplative scientist—and the inner demons that arise from what he discovers in his work. Stricken with illness and hallucinations, the pressure of his writings getting to him, Charles' turning point comes when his family side collides with his studies and a loved one's death allows him to recognize the difference between religion and faith. Bettany makes every shade of his character believable.
Connelly, meanwhile, is as reliable as always, perhaps even better than that as she navigates the betrayal Emma feels through Charles' work and the guilt she experiences when one of her children falls ill. For a female character living in the mid-19th century, Emma is written as progressive and strong-willed, a woman who has her own beliefs yet is willing, finally, to open her mind to the possibility that Charles might be onto something. The last few scenes between Bettany and Connelly, most prominently in a heated confrontation they share, is high drama played raw, unflinching and intimate. Also leaving a strong imprint is Martha West, as Annie, her control, maturity and naturalism all the more stunning for a child actor making her big-screen debut.
"Creation" might have afforded greater development in regards to Charles Darwin's research and how he ended up with his revolutionary theory—this aspect of the movie is a bit vague—but that is the one downfall in a motion picture both thoughtful and absorbing. To this day, most of Darwin's theories hold up to scrutiny, despite the narrow-minded controversy surrounding them. What director Jon Amiel does so well here is humanize the man behind the writings. There's always a back story to tell, and the one that "Creation" unveils is complex, honest, and respectful without being sugarcoated.