Reviewed by: Val Kermode

“Tell me a story,” says Darwin’s daughter Annie, and the story he tells her is one of a British explorer arriving on the shore of Tierra del Fuego and encountering a band of primitive people. As that sailing ship appears in the bay, and then as soldiers with rifles confront these people with spears, we know that their world is about to change forever. The newcomers offer jewelled buttons and as an experiment take away three children to be “civilised”. The experiment fails and the children are eventually returned.

Creation focuses on the middle years of Charles Darwin’s life, when he agonised over the completion of his most famous work On The Origin Of Species – By Means Of Natural Selection, knowing that its publication would not only have an explosive effect on a society underpinned by the Church and a belief in a divine Creator, but would deeply upset his religious wife, Emma, who feared that they would be eternally separated in the afterlife.

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“At last gleams of light have come and I’m almost convinced that species are not immutable. It is like confessing a murder.”

Darwin is seen discussing his work with his daughter, but it soon becomes clear that this is a child who can return only in his imagination, for his beautiful and intelligent Annie (Martha West) died at the age of ten, and her loving father is still tormented by grief and guilt.

This film is based on the book Annie’s Box by Darwin’s great great grandson, Randal Keynes, with a screenplay by John Collee. The box contained mementos of Annie, and the story moves back and forth through her short life and the years following her death, an event which Darwin saw as further evidence of natural laws not bound by divine intervention. Darwin has to work through his grief before he can share it with Emma and before they can decide together about the publication of his work.

Darwin and his wife are played by real life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, and there is a natural sense of intimacy which makes their scenes together very convincing. Bettany’s finely tuned performance lifts what could otherwise have been an unbearably depressing story. Though much of the time he portrays a man racked with anxiety, he also convinces as the deeply loving father and a man fascinated by every aspect of the natural world. (He has a memorable scene with a captured orangutan which must have been very difficult to film.)

Martha West, making her debut as Annie, has just the right qualities of courage and openness, and there is a strong supporting cast, including Jeremy Northam as the clergyman whose friendship is severely tested.

This is a film which seeks to convey emotional truth rather than historical accuracy. Darwin’s recurrent ill health is well documented, as is his concern about marrying a first cousin. Both are given great significance in this version of events. By choosing to highlight the death of Annie, Amiel concentrates on Darwin the father and husband and leaves little room for intellectual argument. The discovery that Alfred Russell Wallace had been working along the same lines had a profound effect on Darwin. Here the news adds little to his already existing emotional turmoil.

Jess Hall (Brideshead)’s photography provides a dazzling collage of the natural world, and the minutiae of life at Down House is well recreated, including the pigeons kept, with the assistance of Parslow (Jim Carter), for the study of their skeletons.

How much does this tell us about the real Charles Darwin? Probably very little. We are, after all, being told a story.

Reviewed on: 16 Sep 2009
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A look at the personal conflicts Charles Darwin experienced when deciding whether or not to publish his theory of evolution.
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Director: Jon Amiel

Writer: John Collee, based on the biography by Randal Keynes.

Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jim Carter

Year: 2009

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


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