“Papa, tell me a story,” Annie Darwin (Martha West) says, her face fresh and eager. Her father Charles (Paul Bettany) asks what she wants to hear about. She has an answer ready: “About everything.”
Coming at the start of Creation, the request is at once typically childish, charmingly ambitious, and broadly allusive, helpfully setting up the film’s version of Darwin’s memories. He begins here with his travels to Tierra del Fuego, where he and Robert FitzRoy discover “the dirtiest, most unclean, least civilized people you could ever imagine.” He goes on to describe their experiment with three children, purchased for a few buttons and brought back to England, trained in etiquette, Western history, and religion, then returned to the island so that they can spread their experience and “civilize” their community.
While he narrates the children’s release, the camera sits low on the beach, watching them scamper and strip off their suits and dresses, laughing as they embrace their relatives and forget their so-called education. Darwin is telling this story in order to distract Annie, restless while she’s instructed to sit still during an interminable photo-taking session, circa 1850. The story serves another function, suggesting that no matter what plans a good (if misguided) man may have, he has less control over events and outcomes than he imagines. On one level, this premise supports Darwin’s theory of evolution. On another, it frames the movie’s version of his primary dilemma in life, that is, his years-long reluctance to publish that his theory.
Darwin describes the Tierra del Fuegan children’s gleeful tossing of Western clothes and teachings in a way that suggests he’s amused by the experiment’s failure, and even draws some instruction from it. Namely, he sees that forms of civilization, including Christianity, are imposed and not necessarily “natural” or “best” for every community. Still, he worries throughout the film over completing and publishing On the Origin of the Species, as it will effectively “kill God,” as his colleague Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) puts it, and so quite upset Darwin’s wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), mother of their 10 children and devoted Christian. Their debates are fashioned here to coincide with two illnesses: Charles’ ongoing and many-symptomed affliction (spasms, malaise, gas, exhaustion, vomiting, anxiety, etc.) and Annie’s scarlet fever, which results in her death at age 10.
Creation is an unusually complicated movie in its conception, linking Darwin’s many struggles — physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual — as they lead, essentially, to his theory of evolution, termed here “the biggest single idea in the history of thought.” It works hard to show all these many struggles in a coherent fashion, using Darwin’s relationship with Annie as a kind of scaffolding. (This scaffolding is large enough to accommodate a sequence in which Darwin spends time with Jenny the orangutan at the London Zoo in 1838, three years before Annie’s birth: she mimics his actions, shows human-like emotions, and provides apparent evidence for his then emerging theory — as well as a charming interlude where Darwin is young and curious and not tormented.) The script by John Collee, adapted from Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution by Randal Keynes, Darwin’s great-great grandson, is ambitious, if frequently awkward, and certainly helped along by Bettany’s persuasive performance.
Connelly has a harder job here, as Emma has to be alternately worried and angry, supportive and contrary, determinedly religious even when that means condoning the schoolroom abuse of her skeptical child by a very serious Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam). Emma must also deal with Darwin’s disbelief as it is manifested in his illness, for which he takes a number of “cures,” most devotedly the “water therapy” devised by Dr. James Manby Gully in Malvern, Worcestershire. (The intercut scenes of Darwin and Annie taking their separate and frankly brutal water cures are aptly harrowing but also trite.)
At the same time — and time is impossibly circular here, the film cutting back and forth in time, among scenes of memory, storytelling, and devastating flashbacks — Darwin is repeatedly haunted by Annie’s ghost. As his internal state is front and center, Emma comes to represent another perspective, only sketched here. She frets about her husband, looks after their surviving children (and has more of them), the movie keeps her at something of a distance, literally watching Darwin as he bends over his notes, cooks the flesh off pigeons in order to study their skeletons or walks in the garden talking to their dead daughter. As Darwin thinks and sweats and frowns, Emma plays piano.
In some flashbacks, you see how they came to have so many children, as they smile and flirt and share a genuine affection, buoyed by their delight in their children. This delight leads to tragedy (see: the predictable holiday on the beach scene, where Annie cavorts without properly warm clothing, apparently leading to her illness, a scene that is collapsed into parents’ feelings of overwhelming guilt), a logic that is profoundly emotional, and hard to reconcile with religious faith (Innes offers up the explanation that “God works in mysterious ways”).
Creation does suggest that when it comes to losing Annie, neither religion nor science is consistently helpful — Darwin’s efforts to save her with the water understandably upset Emma, but when the family doctor throws up his hands, she has no other answer than prayer. Both father and mother absorb blame and then project it back on each other. It’s not an especially original device, the domestic ordeal reflecting the public one. What’s missing here is a sense of any outside world. If the Darwins’ “rough patch” becomes a metaphor for the science-religion debate that his book accelerates, the movie has remarkably little to say about it.