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Creation, a personal reflection on the movie

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018


I just saw the movie Creation, with Paul Bettany as Darwin and Jennifer Connelly (Bettany’s real life wife) as Emma Darwin. And I am very pleasantly surprised how well it worked as a film, as well as how effectively it represented the era. My quibbles are just that, quibbles. Mostly, the history was good (despite the famous tree diagram being shown as a sheet and not a page in the Notebooks), but the overall dramatic themes are just wrong.

The credits claim that it is based upon Randal Keynes’ bestselling book Annie’s Box, which is true enough, but it is also based, rather unfortunately, on Desmond and Moore’s biography Darwin.

Keynes, a descendent of Darwin’s, told a story of how Darwin lost his faith after his daughter Annie died. It’s a pretty story, and the scriptwriters have made much of Darwin’s anxieties and fears after her death. However, it is a story only. All the documentary evidence is that Darwin’s faith had waned long before her death, and her death added nothing to that choice. Also, the film portrays battles between Charles and Emma over religion, which struck a hollow note for me. He always remained respectful of her faith and tried hard not to offend her, unlike events in the film. He did, however, fear that being married to his first cousin had diluted the strength of their children, which is excellently portrayed.

Desmond and Moore’s thesis that Darwin’s illness was psychological, based on his anxieties over the radical nature of his theories, as a “class traitor”, is also given a run. That most commentators think it likely he had Chagas’ disease is not even alluded to, or any other physical cause. This, too, strikes a deeply hollow note. There is a big disconnect between this frail, neurotic Darwin of myth, and the assured, direct and careful Darwin of record. A few too many liberties have been taken by both historians and scriptwriters.

Such academic matters to one side, this turned out to be a moving, engaging and well produced film. The way the film Darwin grieved for his daughter was very convincing and full of pathos. My nonacademic companions were enthralled. Bettany and Connelly are excellently cast, with in Connelly’s case a brilliant English accent for an American, and the young girl who plays Annie doesn’t do a bad job either. If I have a problem, it was the casting of Toby Jones as Tom Huxley; he’s too short. This is not meant to impugn his acting, but it was jarring; Bettany like Darwin is around 6 foot, and Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) was relatively tall too, but as far as I know, Huxley was not a short man. When the other two stand next to him, it is odd. Also, would Huxley ever have said “You’ve killed God, sir” to Darwin? I really doubt it.

I wonder if I can get a copy to show to my Darwinism students?


    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      That sort of follows from the second thesis, of Desmond and Moore.

  1. darwinsbulldog darwinsbulldog

    I really enjoyed the scenes of Darwin and his children engaging with nature.

    The scene of Darwin chasing Emma through the house as she shuts doors behind her – really?

  2. I liked it despite it verging on the melodramatic (I was tempted to re-title it: Origin of Species: The Chick Flick). It also seems to telescope the entire 1850s into a much shorter implied period of time.

    I do enjoy the irony that Bettany had a previous role as Stephen Maturin in Master and Commander, in which as you will recall, he gets to traipse about the Galapagos speculating on transmutation, in 1805.

    Q: I haven’t read anything by Desmond and Moore yet. Do they politicize everything?

  3. I’ve talked with Keynes about it. He thinks the mental disturbances of Darwin portrayed in the movie are accurate, based on some of Emma Darwin’s letters. I’m not entirely convinced; seemed a bit much to me.

    I didn’t care for the brief appearance of Huxley, either. He was portrayed as a smug New Atheist dwarf.

    I have a screener DVD, neener neener. Can’t share it, sorry.

  4. cold water cold water

    Why do you think they would go to all the trouble of making a biography of Darwin on the screen, and then not use something like Janet Browne’s 2 vol. bio as a source?

    on the other hand, I just saw “Inception” and it was as bad as a $200 million film could be.

  5. Neil Neil

    I also saw it last night. I was pleasantly surprised – after the reviews its been getting. As a piece of cinema, it is well done. My only problem with it was that it seemed to endorse the view (put in Darwin’s mouth at one point) that if evolution is true, there is no morality or value.

  6. cromercrox cromercrox

    I saw it on a plane, and, like you, enjoyed it as a film, though I thought the melodrama was heaped on a bit thick. Was Chuckie D such a headcase? Was Emma Darwin such a shrew? My favourite part was the picnic scene where we actually get to see Darwin’s ‘entangled bank’.

  7. My biggest problem with the film (setting aside the history, which was pretty botched) is that it SO often equates evolution with death and decay. Foxes killing, birds dying, flowers rotting…what about the beauty and joy of life?

    This Darwin was a gloomy nutter, not really like the one that I know about.

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