Sunday, September 13, 2009


(Gala Presentation)
(United Kingdom, 2009, 108 minutes)
Written by: John Collee
Based upon “Annie’s Box” by Randal Keynes
Directed by: John Amiel
Cast: Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Martha West, Jeremy Northram, Timothy Spall,
Toby Jones

The ordinarily staid Toronto International Film Festival kicked off with a healthy dose of controversy this year with Naomi Klein-and-company’s organized protest against its "Spotlight On Tel Aviv", and by eschewing CanCon tradition in awarding the Opening Night Gala slot to the kind of earnest, big-themed actor-ly piece seemingly engineered exclusively for festivals. It’s not bad in and of its type, but with a title like “Creation”, the average viewer should expect something more grandiose than this dour, housebound melodrama which consists largely of people squabbling in period garb. And when one of the squabblers is none other than Charles Darwin, author of what has rightly been called the most important idea ever conceived outside of the Big Bang Theory, a tale of procrastination and writer’s block comes off as a bit of a let down, especially without the Charlie Kaufman touch.

Controversy should have followed this well-intentioned, handsomely-mounted BBC Films/UK Film Council production, given the Evolution vs. Intelligent Design imbroglio still raging in America’s schools and churches (six months into President Obama’s first term, the fringe crackpots only seem to be gaining momentum, so don’t expect to see that saddled dinosaur robot on eBay any time soon…). Early accusations of it being an atheistic screed are laughably overstated--John Collee’s script is rather toothless this respect, focusing on the years before Darwin published his incendiary “On Origin Of The Species”...

Based on the novel Annie's Box, by Randal Keynes (Darwin's great-great-grandson!), “Creation” follows an ailing, grief-stricken Darwin (Bettany) at his country house in Kent, as he aches over the loss of his ten-year old daughter Annie (Martha West, daughter of “The Wire”s Dominic West) and struggles to find the courage to complete the 200-plus pages of what will ultimately become his defining work. His heretical theories are well-known to the locals, especially to the church, much to the distress of his religious wife Emma (Connelly), who dreads the repurcussions on their social standing and their children. When he learns that a colleague and fellow naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, has already published an essay proposing virtually identical evolutionary theories, he becomes even more despondent...

John Amiel’s workmanlike direction only comes alive in the fleeting glimpses of Darwin’s seminal voyage to the Galapagos Islands on the H.M.S. Beagle, where he was inspired to devise the theory of natural selection, and in an extended subplot recounting his heartbreaking relationship with Jenny, a young orangutan at the London Zoo from whose behavior he concluded that so-called ‘human’ qualities as altruism, empathy, and morality were part of nature.

There’s a little “Inherit the Wind”-type debating between Darwin and Reverend Inness (Northram), a hiss-able pious prick who once made Annie kneel in rock salt for questioning a Bible lesson. And a team of supportive scientists (Jones and Spall) credit him for “killing God”. And of course, Annie appears throughout in spectral form to act as her father’s conscience, not unlike Clive Owen’s dead wife in “The Boys Are Back”—something of a through-line I saw in a handful of films at this year’s TIFF.

As Darwin’s conflicted, religious wife Connelly affects a convincing British accent but otherwise isn’t given much to do but fret prettily as the wife/mother beyond the requisite “you care more about—insert subject of film here—than you do about me/us/our children” scenes--pretty much the same role for which she won the Oscar in “A Beautiful Mind”.

Bettany invests his all, though--paler than usual and sporting a bad comb over and even worse sideburns—while on familiar ground as well, having already played a fictionalized version of Darwin in the far more awe-inspiring “Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World”.

©Robert J. Lewis 2009