Gripping in its intensity and eye-opening with its juxtapositions, Creation is a glimpse of the intersection of Charles Darwin’s public and private lives. Paul Bettany stars as the famed naturalist, portraying a man tormented by personal loss and a moral dilemma that threatened to keep his greatest discoveries under wraps.
More lyrical than a straightforward biopic and dense with layers of plot and history, Jon Amiel’s new film focuses on the final stages of Darwin’s research before writing his seminal work, On the Origin of Species. He and his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) are suffering the loss of their daughter Annie (Martha West), whose death at age ten changes them deeply and strains their marriage. As Darwin’s allies put increasing pressure on him to publish his findings, his hesitation intensifies, too. Caught between his wife’s religiosity and his scientific beliefs, he retreats into mourning and reclusiveness.
Creation keeps us close to Darwin visually and emotionally, and barely lets go for a second of relief. As a portrait of a stricken man, the film nestles itself into Darwin’s agony, taking the audience with him as he sinks deeper into depression and, seemingly, grief-driven dementia. While the film has a healthy, real-time pace, Amiel weaves Darwin’s travels and memories seamlessly into the narrative through effective flashbacks. For Darwin, Annie isn’t quite gone: She appears when he needs cheering up — or cheering on — and acts like a ghostly conscience, embodying the voices in his head. The good news is that she’s so adorable and spunky that there’s nothing creepy about an undead ten-year-old showing up from time to time.
So while our mad naturalist wrestles with his politics and professional life, he also carries on a touching shadow relationship with his daughter that unequivocally demands a pack of Kleenex. Along with Annie, Darwin’s other key relationship is with the natural world. In Amiel’s portrayal, a casual picnic scene suddenly segues into a high-speed reveal of a bird’s life cycle, from birth to death to fertilizer, in a fantastical style that would make Peter Jackson proud. In recounting a story to undead-Annie, we meet Darwin’s chimpanzee friend — the first to be brought to England — and absorb not just his intellectual curiosity, but his instincts and fearlessness as a scientist.
With compelling performances reigning in the drama, the film allows us see the world through Darwin’s eyes, from our symbiosis with nature to the all-encompassing grief of a helpless parent. It also reveals the fracture in his marriage that began with Annie’s death, and that was exacerbated by his waning religious belief. Connelly doesn’t get all the greatest lines — which may also be a reflection of Emma Darwin’s time and place — but the better ones are definitive, and the actress is stunningly convincing as an isolated wife, grieving silently from the other side of a crevasse between her and her husband (It doesn’t hurt that she and Bettany are a real-life couple).
Creation isn’t a film for everyone, but it’s multifaceted enough to allow for diverse readings. Elegantly blending Darwin’s personal story with his scientific worldview, it’s an impressive work that makes history and science much more beautiful, relevant and riveting than they ever seemed in the classroom.