So many books, articles, and documentary films have been produced about the life of Charles Darwin that it is difficult to keep track of all the Darwiniana, but the recently-released feature film Creation is something special. It is not a straight biography, nor is it an entirely fictionalized account. Instead it is an amplified version of a challenging time in Darwin’s life which largely eschews intricate details in favor of broad, powerful strokes.
Viewers hoping for a 100% historically-accurate dramatization of Darwin’s life will be disappointed from the very first scene. The film opens with Darwin telling his daughter Annie about how the captain of the HMS Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, convinced the Fuegians of Patagonia to trade three of their children from a handful of buttons and other trinkets. The true story of how FitzRoy abducted these children, as recounted in Evolution’s Captain, is far more complex (and to my mind, compelling), but we should not get so hung up on questions of accuracy that we miss why the story is being recounted in the first place. The purpose of the story is that it immediately establishes the special relationship between Darwin and his daughter, a bond that is used time and again to move the film’s story forward.
Following that story, however, is not always easy. The majority of the film takes place between 1849 and 1859, but rather than following a linear path it loops back on itself over and over again. This is sometimes accomplished through the stories Darwin tells to Annie, while at other times the shifts are more abrupt. Nevertheless, the focus of the film is Darwin’s struggle to write and publish what would become On the Origin of Species, with the main source of tension stemming from his worries over religion.
Contrary to what you may have heard, however, the film does not suggest that the death of Annie caused Darwin to lose his faith. The manifestation of Darwin portrayed in Creation has all but lost his belief in God when we first meet him, and he is confident in his scientific conclusions. Darwin’s unease does not come from an internal struggle with Providence but a fear of how his book might be received by religious readers, a worry that intensifies when the local country parson, Rev. Innes, publicly rebukes Darwin from the pulpit by way of a sermon on Genesis. (Again, the relationship between Darwin and Innes is portrayed as more tense than it truly was. In truth, they remained friends until Darwin’s death.) While the drama was enhanced for the silver screen, I think the depiction of Darwin was a confident, but worried, naturalist is true to the way Darwin felt at that time in his life.
Overall, I felt pleasantly surprised by the end of the first act, but my enthusiasm for the film waned during the latter portions. My main gripe involves the invocation of Annie’s ghost. The ectoplasmic Annie acts as a spirit guide to the beleaguered Darwin, pushing him forward in his work and urging him to mend the strained relationship with his wife. It would be possible to accomplish this by using Annie’s ghost delicately, as one would handle a scalpel, but instead director Jon Amiel weilds the narrative tool like a cudgel. Annie does not manifest herself in dreams or memories but as a vision that only Darwin can see, and her presence drives Darwin into madness. I can understand why Amiel may have wanted to use the device of Annie’s ghost to keep the story moving forward, but his use of the effect was so gratuitous that it created a vision of Darwin that did not actually exist.
Hence Creation is something of a mixed bag. The cinematography and style are wonderful, especially a time-lapse visualization of an “entangled bank” in which life and death are intertwined, but portions of the film can be quite irritating. Even so, I still think Creation is a well-crafted film that presents a more nuanced depiction of Darwin than I was expecting. As with any caricature some aspects of Darwin’s life were emphasized over others, and while I would have preferred the film to be a touch more historically accurate I think this particular version of Darwin’s story has more potential to resonate with viewers than a self-conscious approach hampered by concerns about getting everything “just so”. It is too much to say that Creation is “the true story of Charles Darwin” as the film’s posters proclaim, but hopefully the film will spur viewers to forget about St. Darwin, the legend for a moment and consider who he truly was.