Evolutionary Road

cr1 49 Evolutionary Road Creation
Running time 108 minutes
Written by John Collee
Directed by Jon Amiel
Starring  Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Northam

reation is a sluggish tome on the life of Charles Darwin and his long and painful creation of The Origin of Species, the controversial work of revolutionary thinking about evolution advancing the theory that man was descended not from Adam and Eve, but from monkeys. It caused a sensation throughout the world when it was published in 1859, and changed the history of scientific thinking. This long and wearying movie is about how hard it was to write and publish, and survive the wrath of organized religion that followed. It arrives on the 150th anniversary of the book, and the baroque direction by Jon Amiel is determined that we should live every single minute of it.

 

Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, played by real-life husband-wife team Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, were first cousins in an uptight Victorian milieu who forged a marriage based on love that surmounted all obstacles, including religious differences and the early death of their 10-year-old daughter Annie, which caused Darwin to lose his faith in God. The film focuses on a short period in Darwin’s life in the mid-19th century, between Annie’s death and the book’s publication, when he spends long, tedious days studying earthworms and barnacles in a microscope. Busy selecting breeds of birds to determine which species nature had selected for survival, Darwin becomes an object of curiosity and suspicion for scholars and neighbors alike, his face grimacing, his shoulders hunched and his brow wet with nervous perspiration. With no time to play husband and father to a growing household, his work is so demanding and repetitive that it drives him into feverish illnesses that take a toll on his mental and physical health. It never is clear what’s wrong with him. I chalked it up to overwork. Constantly throwing up, his eyes red-rimmed and glued to his test tubes, he may be a brilliant scientist in the research lab, but what a miserable sod in the parlor.

The film makes a stab at tracing his theory of evolution from a question as simple as “Where do babies come from?” to an obsession with an orangutan at the London Zoo named Jenny, an obsession that convinces him she’s an ancestor of every human being. He splits with the family minister (Jeremy Northam) to the horror of his wife, who suggests he’s at war with God—“a battle you cannot win.” His love of science is shared only by his worshipful daughter Annie, who sides with her father’s belief that “God’s plan” cannot explain 900 species of wasp caterpillars who can turn into butterflies. After Annie dies, Emma takes further refuge in religion, and Charles in the science lab. The movie is not so much about the masterpiece that results from so much tribulation, but about the agony Darwin endures while writing it. As he retreats from society and almost every human contact, the film has an alienating effect. For a movie dedicated to one of the most exciting, groundbreaking books ever written, Creation is disappointingly dull.

The movie is confusingly nonlinear in structure, with the action taking place out of sequence and leapfrogging all over the place, cutting between the naturalism of Darwin’s love for Annie and his anguish over her premature death (he rarely even speaks to his other four children) and the stylized dream sequences where he talks to Annie’s ghost. Despite the efforts of director Amiel and screenwriter John Collee to humanize the domestic side of Darwin’s struggle between faith and reason, too many surreal images and pretentious camera angles disrupt the flow of concentration, and the viewer loses grip. Every time Charles and Emma draw swords, he skips off for a closer look at a rock formation. Creation would have been more interesting if it concentrated more on the marital conflicts between Emma, a devout Christian, and Charles, who thinks the Bible is divinely inspired hogwash.

Despite my misgivings with the film itself, the acting is first rate. Tall, gangly, sandy-haired and bony, with a deeply receding hairline that shows the veins throbbing through his scalp, Paul Bettany is never remotely handsome, but according to the drawings I’ve seen of the real Darwin, he’s remarkably authentic-looking. And Ms. Connelly, who won her Oscar as the wife of another tortured genius, played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind (2001)—the film where she met Bettany—is familiar with the risks faced by wives of great men. Their reactions to each other and the untrained actors who play their children are full of trust and intimacy, even if her grating British accent is less convincing. The story doesn’t entirely work for me, though Darwin did live through his debilitating illnesses to become a national hero, his marriage eventually produced 10 children and Emma stuck by him until his death, at 73. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

I guess you’re pretty much on your own here. Creation is respectable and worthy of attention, but its future seems doubtful in a divisive country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February 2009, only 39 percent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.