And Darwin said, “Let there be light!” And there was light.
When a library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.
– Mark Twain, Feb 1907.
The battle between Good (intelligence) and Evil (the church) is ramped up when Charles Darwin arrives at the epiphany that evolution is driven by natural selection, thereby connecting all organisms on Earth in a mutating relay race of survival.
Mother Church, of course, knows we were really put here by magic.
CREATION is a small slice of the storied life of Charles Darwin (played by the excellently English Paul Bettany, who played Russell Crowe’s naturalist/surgeon in MASTER AND COMMANDER (2003), in a role which reminded us coincidentally of Darwin), covering a period after he had traveled the world with The Beagle (and with Russell Crowe) and before he published his masterwork On The Origin Of Species in 1859, the movie speculating on the decisions and motivations that stayed his hand on publishing his world-breaking and faith-shaking scientific tome.
Because the name Darwin has become shorthand for evolution and all its attendant conjectures, many would not be aware that the man himself did not simply write his theory down in a linear fashion with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his quill. It was physical and mental torture for Charles Darwin to reconcile his hard-won knowledge with that of his inculcated “faith”; he lived in a society “bound together by the church,” a society whose fabric he would risk unraveling were he to publish his renegade theories, even though he would spend decades researching them to ensure he was not spouting emotional guff (like all Born-Agains, Creationists and Intelligent Designists are wont to do 100-percent of the time).
Yet the greatest obstacle in his path was not the almighty close-minded Church. It was, in a word: his puritanical, Unitarian-indoctrinated wife. Jennifer Connelly (Bettany’s real-life wife) is Emma Darwin, the Original Dreamkiller, staunchly siding with Mother Church on all issues, social and scientific, and it is his devotion to her that drives his ultimate decisions.
CREATION seems to get it all right, inserting many minute details into Darwin’s life that only a prior knowledge can appreciate, which means that if the film piques your interest in discovering more about the man, you can always come back to the film and appreciate it even more.
We see the garden path he would take regular walks on while contemplating his theories, we meet his closest allies in the battle for evolutionary theory, Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) and “Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones), we see his experiments breeding pigeons, learn of his work on barnacles, and in the best manner of an objective biopic, we are made aware of Alfred Russell Wallace – the man who inadvertently lost the crown as the discoverer of the theory of evolution.
As a prominent naturalist, Darwin’s favor was courted by young upstarts from around the globe – one of the many naturalists who sent him a letter of an audacious theory of organic interconnectedness was Alfred Russell Wallace. The movie shows us Charles’s despondency over Wallace clearly outlining Darwin’s unfinished, unpublished 1,200-page theory in only 20 pages. (What the movie does NOT show us is Hooker and Huxley exploiting their veteran status in scientific circles to ensure their pal Darwin was credited as the Father of Evolution, relegating Wallace to a footnote.)
The Darwins sired ten children, seven surviving to adulthood; CREATION shows us the period where there were only four, and it is wonderful that they are portrayed as smart, eager to learn, wide-eyed listeners, Darwin’s best and brightest, his beloved ten-year-old Annie (articulate, beautiful and talented Martha West). When Darwin shows his kids a fox catching a rabbit, daughter Etty cries; Annie consoles her by explaining the balance of nature, “If the fox didn’t catch the rabbit then her babies will die of starvation.” I can’t help thinking that Annie speaks to most of the viewers as well, who have been inculcated to believe that in nature documentaries the meat-eating predators are “evil” and the prey are innately “good.”
Annie’s death would devastate Darwin, and the movie utilizes Annie’s influence on Darwin and his undying love for her in a very heart-rending manner.
Though it is well-documented Emma was Charles’s boon and simultaneous bane, one of the best explorations of this dynamic is in Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. Only Wright’s book dares to postulate what this movie and other Darwin media is scared to – that Charles’s mysterious, chronic “ill-health” was psychosomatic, brought about because he was scared of shattering not only society’s religious illusions, but those of his wife as well, thereby falling out of grace with her (in other words, losing her sexual favors). For brevity, I have made an oversimplification, but throw in the scientific community either drooling for Darwin’s publication to shore up their credibility or to tear it down with elitist criticism, and Darwin’s bowels were bound to be roiling like primordial lava, with Alka-Seltzer a century away.
This was the age when all doctors were basically pure and simple quacks, bleeding you with leeches at the hint of a fever. Darwin’s treatment for his ongoing illness: sharp spinal scrubs and cold douches at 7am, and sweating by the lamp. With this madhouse treatment it’s a wonder anyone lived to old age. Spinal scrubs and douches! Reminds us of comedian Billy Connolly’s routine of British military doctors and their universal cure: “Wire brush and Dettol!”
Darwin’s wife suggests he speak to the reverend (Jeremy Northam), “a physician of souls,” never once considering it might be her and the community’s religious stupidity that keeps him in that state of irremediable distress. Darwin laments, “Suppose the whole world stopped believing that God had any sort of plan for us?” Huxley jubilantly congratulates Darwin for that very reason, “You’ve killed God, sir! And about time!”
The Church’s petty terrorism reaches a personal level when the reverend forces little Annie into knee-bleeding penance on rock salt until she recants her belief in dinosaurs, sending Darwin into a rage: “How dare he torture our children for expressing a plain and simple truth?!” Emma – oh, soul-destroying dominatrix Emma – is naturally on the reverend’s side, and entreats Darwin to calm himself “for her” – once again proving that though he might have descended from a great ape, he was still whipped by a great pussy.
Director Jon Amiel (THE CORE, THE TUDORS) and writers Amiel and John Collee, base their story on the book Annie’s Box by Randall Keynes, so devote much screentime to the admittedly wondrous Annie, and flashbacks of her death. Ghosts instead of science. And they dare a lot when they endow Darwin’s relationship with unnecessary love for the sake of dramatic arc. CREATION is sometimes billed as a great love story. Well, maybe love of a man for the truth of his origins. NOT love between a man and woman – although Emma was quite the sex machine to churn out ten offspring. Darwin and Emma would reconcile not because of love or faith in imaginary deities, but because of social circumstances and logic.
Darwin even applied that logic to Annie’s death, blaming both Emma and himself (first cousins to each other) for “the weakness that killed her.” The movie never brings it up, but this is a genetics issue, which Darwin never quite grasped, nor mentioned in Origin. (The monk Gregor Mendel – not in the movie, but a contemporary of Darwin’s – was working on and publishing his genetics experiments even whilst Origin was being assimilated into mankind’s bloodstream (it sold out on its first day), but it would be years before it was realized his work powerfully corroborated Darwin’s.)
The battle between Good and Evil rages on. That is, the battle between apes and pussies.