The challenge of filming a biopic of Charles Darwin is a big one.
Evolution is arguably the most significant discovery of all time and consequently Darwin is a scientific paragon. His research was dogged at every step by his internal conflict with the societal religious beliefs at the time; the more he researched the more he believed that religion had little place in the world and yet he was aware that this revelation would involve a complete upheaval of Victorian values.
His life was further complicated by the death of his daughter Annie, said to have had a profound effect on his loss of faith.
Creation has the admirable production values of any BBC costume drama and while it might not be draped in the lavishness of some of its more recent contemporaries (such as Keira Knightley vehicle The Duchess or Michelle Pfeiffer’s gilt-edged Cheri), this is actually a good thing. The focus here should be Darwin and the monumental scope of his discovery and its personal effects, not lavish extravagance and lingering shots of stately homes and their gardens, so it’s admirable that director Jon Amiel has elected to focus on the unfolding drama and not the chandeliers.
It’s an inventive and original script which eschews traditional biopic elements but instead uses flashbacks, hallucinations, and fantasy and dream sequences to create an intensely personal portrait of the great man. The result is a proper Victorian setting with a very modern tone which prevents the film from becoming dry.
Paul Bettany gives an outstanding performance as Darwin, feverishly driven by the desire to make his findings public whilst not wanting to upset the societal applecart. The chemistry between him and his real life wife Jennifer Connolly is touching and believable; Darwin’s research bringing him close to madness and his marriage close to self-destruction.
There’s strong support from newcomer Martha West as Darwin’s deceased daughter Annie who only he can see (a bit like The Great Gazoo from The Flintstones) encouraging him further but also tormenting him with the thought of her loss. It’s in the flashback sequences that the film stumbles. Whilst they’re inventive, they do come across as overly melodramatic, with Annie occasionally appearing like one of the twins from The Shining, and it’s these faux horror elements which don’t really work.
This minor gripe can be easily forgiven in a film which is superbly acted and remains faithful to Darwin’s life (as you would expect given that it’s based upon a book by Randall Keynes, Darwin’s great-great-grandson). It’s an engaging and informative film, worth seeing even if you have only a cursory interest in the man behind the biggest epoch-shattering scientific discovery ever made.