One of the great tragedies of the cult of the director as author is the extent to which it failed to take root in television. Even now, if you listen to commentary tracks for BBC DVDs you will find people talking about writers and producers. Never directors. In the world of television, directors are still seen in the way that they were in the wider cinematic world prior to the rise of the French New Wave : As a cadre of technical and logistical professionals whose creative impact is actually minimal. Even television programmes that are ostensibly visual are frequently associated more with their presenters than their directors. David Attenborough, for example, has made a career out of taking credit for the images captured by others. Another such injustice is Jon Amiel’s direction of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (1986). As director, Amiel transformed Potter’s ontologically complex blend of memory, reality and fantasy into a television series that was not only coherent but a classic. Sadly, the two and a bit decades since The Singing Detective have not been kind to Amiel with his time having been spent on a number of instantly forgettable television adaptations and second rate genre films. However, Creation, the story of Charles Darwin’s struggle to write On the Origin of Species (1859), marks a real return to form. It is just unfortunate that only half the film works.
As the film opens, we find Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) consumed by existential angst. His years on the Beagle are long behind him, he is married and settled with children. He has a reputation as a brilliant naturalist. He even seems to have a fortune that he is spending on endless research into pigeons. He should be a happy man and yet he is not. In fact, he is so unhappy that his inner turmoil is starting to manifest itself as physical symptoms prompting him to take laudanum to steady his nerves. He is, simply put, falling apart. The reason for his existential anguish is that he is trapped in the jaws of a terrible dilemma over publishing the theory of evolution as it appeared in On the Origins of Species (1859)
The first horn of this dilemma is that Darwin, as a scientist, feels the need to speak the truth. He sees the reality for evolution all around him to the point where it becomes almost oppressive : A simple trip to the beach becomes a demonstration of Earth’s great geological age. A picnic in a peaceful summer meadow serves to reveal the fact that, far from being peaceful, nature is a vast battleground littered with the corpses of those who fell in the universal struggle for survival. Amiel wonderfully visualises all of these processes and the result is that Darwin’s world is almost difficult to bear. The truth is so omnipresent that he simply must speak it. When he does, Darwin is magnificent : A casual chat with a parish priest (Jeremy Northam) becomes a devastating intellectual display as the clergyman’s simple beliefs are picked apart by a scientific genius in full control of his faculties. This side of Darwin is almost childlike in its joy and it comes to be represented by Darwin’s daughter Annie (Martha West), a scientific chip-off-the-old-block who is more than willing to ask awkward questions and shows a truly infectious delight in her own growing knowledge of the world.
The second horn of the dilemma is that Darwin was a man of his times. A man who, at one point, considered becoming a priest and who, even in his lack of faith, is filled with compassion. As much as he sees the obvious truth in his ideas, he is terrified by what might happen if he should reveal them to the world. He worries for his immortal soul, he worries about denying people the consolation provided by religion and he worries about what might happen to society should it come to turn its back on God. This side of Darwin comes to be symbolised by his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who is deeply devout and deeply protective of the Church.
Darwin is being slowly torn apart by the vast tidal forces generated by these two powerful and utterly incompatible desires. An early meeting with Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) and Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) sees Darwin paralysed with fear by Huxley’s triumphal announcement that he has killed God. As he flees to his bedroom in order to throw up, he suddenly looks very old. Then, little Annie is forced to kneel on rock-salt by the parish priest for the terrible crime of asserting the existence of dinosaurs and Darwin becomes filled with such a sense of righteous fury that he seems about ready to march on the local church and beat the vicar to a pulp (a desire I can only say that I shared). We are shown these different desires as they wax and wane over a period of years and Amiel’s refusal to keep the film in a strict chronological order means that an angry and atheistic Darwin always appears more youthful and vibrant than the older and sicker Darwin who nearly buckled beneath the responsibility of unleashing the theory of evolution upon the world.
This part of the film is a true joy to behold. Bettany is on career-defining form as he perfectly captures the two sides of Darwin’s personality, presenting him as not only a brilliant scientist but also a profoundly frail and vulnerable human being. The film also allows the ideas underpinning evolution to express themselves on their own terms rather than through any kind of conflict with older theories of creation or theological order. The old beliefs are presented through Connelly and Northam as essentially passive. They are secure in their superiority and grounded more in psychology and tradition than intellectual rigour. Creation is not a film about the superiority of evolution to creationism, it is a film about the manifest and undeniable truth of the process of evolution through natural selection and to see those ideas dealt with properly and with such visual style is a rare treat given film’s usual preference for home-spun folk psychology over scientific fact. However, about half-way through the film, Creation’s script suddenly goes off the rails.
As Darwin’s health goes further down hill, he decides to travel for treatment at the hands of a hydro-therapist. The quack deploys his tinctures and treatments but these seem to have no effect. Evidently, Darwin’s health problems are psychological and not physiological. Who’d have guessed? However, rather than stemming from the existential dilemma carefully laid out in its first half, the film decides that Darwin’s problems flow instead from some residual antagonism towards his wife caused by the death of their daughter Annie. Evidently, Annie came down with some kind of disease and Darwin immediately decided to treat Annie with hydro-therapy meaning that, not only did he turn his back on the rest of his family in order to try and save Annie, but he also failed to save her life and deprived her of her mother’s company as she died. The problem with this section of the film is three-fold :
Firstly, the actual source of the conflict between Darwin and his wife is not particularly clear. Darwin blames himself for the death of his daughter and thinks that his wife does too but it turns out that she in fact does not. There is also some stuff about his loving Annie more than the rest of his children and Emma Darwin retreating into religion as a result of her daughter’s death but none of this makes much sense and, more importantly, it completely fails to connect up with the existential dilemma presented at the beginning of the film. It makes sense to suggest that Darwin could not write On the Origin of Species because of fear of attacking religion but the suggestion that he could not write it because of some resentment towards his wife is never fleshed out or really explained. The film simply shows us the Darwins solving their marital problem and Charles then writing the book. Admittedly this might well be an example of post hoc ergo propter hoc but the implication, surely, is that emotional problems have causal primacy over intellectual ones, at least when it comes to understanding Charles Darwin’s delay in writing his book.
Secondly, the first half of the film effectively establishes Emma Darwin as a cold and aloof woman who only makes her presence known only by defending religion in the face of obvious falsehood and moral corruption or by dementedly playing the piano as a way of working out her frustrations. Creation simply does not show us why Darwin should love this woman, so to peg the narrative to Darwin rediscovering his love for his wife is emotionally unsatisfying. It also weakens the psychology of the second half of the film as while Darwin himself is a fully fleshed out and believable character, Emma is a two-dimensional authority figure. Any emotions projected onto such an unsympathetic character are bound to feel artificial, especially given how late in the film the projection takes place.
Thirdly, the desire to peg the film to an emotional rather than an intellectual problem is an act of utter cowardice. Ever since the 1990s, it has been the fashion to dumb down abstract ideas by linking them to mundane events through the means of metaphor. For example, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer we do not get a boy coping with being a werewolf, we get a boy coping with teenaged hormonal surges presented to us using werewolves as a metaphor. Similarly, we do not get an episode about the capacity of peer pressure and the need to ingratiate oneself with new friends, we get an episode about a bunch of teenagers who become possessed by the spirit of a pack of hyenas. By tying such abstract and fantastical ideas to mundane soap-operatic plot lines, the writers fail to do justice either to the fantastical ideas or to the real social and psychological issues they are touching upon. The cross-linking of two different sets of ideas requires a simplification of fact and an obfuscation of detail to work and so both sets of ideas are diminished and dumbed down by their association. The same process is at work in Creation.
The film begins by ably explaining a set of huge, complex and important ideas. It then suggests that these new ideas might well be in conflict with a set of older and more established ideas but, rather than actually dealing with the clash of ideas and explaining to us why one is right and the other is wrong, the writers distract us by drawing our attention to a seemingly unrelated but undeniably easier to understand source of conflict involving a couple’s repressed feelings of resentment towards each other. This is rather like trying to make a film about the history of the Cold War and spending half the film setting up the ideological conflict between political systems only to then decide to make the second half of the film about a couple that have stopped talking to each other. This not only debases and trivialises Big Ideas, it also makes for terrible drama as the conflict between the characters is never allowed to stand on its own feet and acquire its own shape and complexity. Instead it is constantly looking over its shoulder and trying to remain relevant to the Big Ideas it is standing proxy for.
Creation contains not only great performances, wonderful direction and powerful emotional moments, it also deals with some of the Big Ideas that have shaped not only our world but our image of ourselves as a species. While I enjoyed the film, I cannot help but wish that the creators had decided to make either a film about the Darwins’ lives as a couple, or a film about evolution. By attempting to do both at the same time, they have managed to do a disservice to both sets of ideas and this is a real shame as the building blocks were here for a genuinely fantastic film.