The legacy of Charles Darwin — not unlike those of Jesus, Moses, or Abraham Lincoln — presents a daunting challenge for storytellers: When a nonfictional character carries such widespread familiarity, audiences automatically prejudge the results. “Creation,” the rare non-Canadian movie to open the Toronto International Film Festival, displays no awareness of these trappings and obliviously falls into them. The movie recounts Darwin’s emotional and theological struggles immediately prior to writing “On the Origin of the Species” in 1859. Paul Bettany plays the groundbreaking researcher as a stiff, broken man — equally wrecked by the atheistic implications of his evolution theory and the death of his daughter years earlier. But the scientific discoveries responsible for Darwin’s lasting fame remain in the shadows to leave room for these abstract conundrums, resulting in a dry period piece missing crucial information.
Director Jon Amiel fails to navigate the intrinsic flaws of John Collee’s screenplay. Cursory dialogue and incidents hinting at Darwin’s studies sound like Cliffs Notes to the (offscreen) controversy it sparked. (“You’ve killed God!” spouts an energetic visitor to Darwin’s home, then repeats the line rather than elaborating on it.) Darwin’s studies remain secondary to his family problems, which mainly involve the hostility of his brooding wife (Jennifer Connelly) and the ubiquitous specter of his late child. The few glimpses into his animal research mainly serve as feeble metaphors for his inner turmoil. In one scene, Darwin shows his children a fox preying on a helpless rabbit and finds himself oddly conflicted over it. While the conclusions of his observations (survival of the fittest, etc.) could probably lead to a thoughtful story about the mysteries of the universe, “Creation” avoids such details in favor of Bettany’s wide-eyed mad scientist routine, which seems vaguely condescending to the value of Darwin’s research.
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Worst than that, the movie lacks a sense of awe. Emphasizing the character’s bleak nightmares and relentlessly downbeat sentiments, Amiel creates an eerie atmosphere to mimic Darwin’s ongoing discontent, but avoids the massive ramifications of his discoveries. If “Creation” were absolute fiction, it would be a meaningless bore; instead, it’s a directionless bore with the intrinsic meaning drained out of the picture. Darwin’s progressiveness has nothing to do with the story. You can get a better sense of one man uncovering the inherent chaos of nature from Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.” (There’s a fox in that movie, too, and it speaks for itself.)
No one can doubt the timelessness of Darwin’s moral quandaries. From “Inherit the Wind” to Bush-era campaigns for teaching creationism in public schools, the divisiveness of his work continues to have major social and political reverberations. However, that hardly means Darwin’s personal life deserves the spotlight. By forcing it to center stage, Amiel manages to make a movie about the origin of life feel utterly lifeless.