Monday, January 18, 2010

The Amiel/Bettany/Connelly CREATION: Darwin delivers, at least halfway.

There is so much that is so good in CREATION -- the new film about Charles Darwin, his friends, family and work -- directed by Jon Amiel (shown just below), with a screenplay by John Collee (from the Darwin biography by the man's great, great grandson Randal Keynes), that it pains me to find, finally, its parts far better than its whole. Those parts -- certain indelible scenes -- often work so well, however, that I cannot but recommend that you see this film. Much of it is simply wonderful, eye-opening movie-making.

To my mind one of history's most important scientists for pulling the rug from under much religious "theory," Darwin himself was not particularly happy about this, as the movie makes clear. Married to a devout woman whom he dearly loved, he would no doubt have had things otherwise. Some of the film's early scenes are filled with smart discussion of science versus religion, between characters such as Joseph Hooker (a smooth Benedict Cumberbatch, below left), Thomas Huxley (an acerbic Toby Jones), the stern and somewhat pompous family friend Reverend Innes (an ever-so-slow-burning Jeremy Northham, below, center right) and Darwin himself (played very well by Paul Bettany (below, with legs stretched out, who pretty much runs his acting gamut here). That devout wife is essayed by Jennifer Connelly (below, right), but she is saddled with the nudge/drudge role, which curtails both her charm and beauty.  I wish the filmmakers had given her more to do/say/think, though she does have a nice penultimate scene.

Amiel's film concentrates most on the family relationships, particularly that of the Darwins and their daughter Annie, played quite well by newcomer Martha West (shown below left, with Connelly), who sports a wiser-than-her-years attitude that, for a change, does not curdle the viewer's goodwill. Because of his wife's devotion to religion, Darwin turns to Annie as his confidante and (in some ways) his adviser, and when illness strikes the child, his life and hers unravel.

One of the strengths of Creation comes in showing us that, as far ahead of the curve was Darwin, just as far behind it were many of the medical practices of the day -- some of which are shown in all their brutality and ugliness. Another wonderful section of the film deals with the orangutan Jenny (below), the scientific subject whom Darwin grows close to -- and (by reading and hearing about her) so does Annie. Some of the scenes involving this animal are breath-
takingly moving, especially given how true to the time period they look and feel.

Midway along, however, and from there through the finale, the movie begins to repeat itself, seeming to dawdle over Annie's illness (do we need to hear her ask for the orangutan story one more time?). The director deserves credit for his (and his cinematographer Jess Hall's) splendid work in placing the camera in such a way -- in the family scenes as well as the scenes with Jenny -- that it seems to caress its subjects with an exceptional warmth and love.  (This is a "family" movie in a much better sense of the word than are most Disney films.)  Your reviewer, however, wished for more of the intelligence and religion-versus-science fire that lit up those early scenes. 

Unlike The Young Victoria, another "historical" film currently in theaters with little more on its mind than history as pageant/
entertainment, and royals coming of age and falling in love (and it succeeds quite well in these objectives, by the way), Creation is about much more important stuff and is as timely now as when the events it pictures transpired.  That it works as well as it does is commendable; that it doesn't go the rest of the way is a shame. I wonder if the filmmakers were so worried that they decided to concentrate more on Darwin's family and Annie's sickness than on his work?  Fundamentalist thinkers will not embrace him either way, so it's too bad an opportunity has been missed.

Still, the filmmaker's final shot is richly moving and meaningful, combining, as the movie has managed frequently over its hundred-odd minutes, fantasy and reality.  It's subtle, too: Rather than allowing us to see the scene from the front, we view it from the rear, as Darwin moves ahead.  Even then, it is only at the final moment that we see whose hand he is holding.  Ah, but we recognize the clothing.

Creation, distributed by Newmarket Films (this is perhaps its penance for foisting upon us the torture-porn feature The Passion of the Christ and making lots of money from it), opens this Friday, January 22, in New York City at the Clearview First & 62nd Cinema and at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.  Other venues nationwide should follow simultaneously -- or soon after.

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