“Supposing nothing mattered. Not love, not trust, not faith, not honour. Only brute survival,” muses Charles Darwin in Creation. Darwin, acted by Paul Bettany, is all too conscious of the existential anxieties provoked by On the Origin of Species. 150 years following its publication, the topic of the film was even controversial enough that its producers apparently had difficulty securing distribution in the US. Little wonder. This is creationism vs. evolution at its most contentious.
In Creation, Darwin has worked tirelessly for eight years, cheered on by a spattering of colleagues, despised by countless others, and grudgingly tolerated by his God-fearing wife (Jennifer Connelly). The stakes are high, and Darwin knows it. Hands trembling, he wipes a sweaty forehead as he writes; he shakes and hallucinates as the lines of On the Origin of Species pour out of his pen. “You have killed God, sir!” exclaims Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) excitedly with a pat on the back. And yet it is not that simple.
Indeed, Creation paints Darwin as far more complex than a hyper-rational scientist out to kill God. He is a family man who dotes on daughter Annie (Martha West), and loves truth above all else. But he begins to lose his wits when Annie dies at a mere 10 years of age. His wife takes solace in Christianity, but there is no comfort for him in survival of the fittest.
“What are you so scared of?” his daughter asks. “It’s only a theory.” By highlighting Darwin’s anxiety, director Jon Amiel emphasizes how far beyond mere theory evolution reaches, into the very core of human vulnerability. A world in which nothing matters, no benevolent God watches, and death is merely the culmination of unforgivable weakness. The film beats the religion issue a little much, and Bettany could stand to scale back on the trembling and sweating and hallucinating. Not to mention the bizarre scenes in which luminescent water pours down on him from above (artistic license only goes so far before losing all coherency).
The film has mild educational value, belied by the high-school age kids milling around the theatre before the show, apparently in search of their teacher. Planet Earth-like montages pepper the movie—it is a BBC film, after all—in visually stunning and occasionally repulsive renditions.
After much struggle, Darwin resolves that there is no room for God in his theory, or in his soul. But he must find the courage to release his ideas out into the world, a world where many of his brethren already hate him. He must find a way to make peace with his daughter’s death.
“It is puzzling,” he reflects. “So much beauty for so little purpose.”
With the mesmerizing cinematography and heart-wrenching poignancy of Creation, the film conveys how crucial beauty and love are to humanity. But whatever the viewer’s own perspective, Amiel clearly espouses Darwin’s final resolution, that “there is grandeur in this view of life”.
Creation is available on DVD. Watch the trailer on YouTube.