Charles Darwin is having a banner year. February 2009 marked his 200th birthday, while On the Origin of Species celebrated its 150th anniversary last November. In June, NPR-approved indie rockers the Low Anthem released the record Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, which ruminates on the darker implications of his work. Now U.S. audiences have the chance to see Creation, a melodramatic biopic that desperately tries to inject tension into the story of history’s most controversial evolutionary biologist.
The lives of good writers do not typically lend themselves to gripping movies. Darwin, for example, spent most of his working life as a sickly man, quietly laboring himself to exhaustion at his desk. It’s a romantic sort of dedication, but hardly the stuff of which edge-of-your-seat thrillers are made. Directed by Jon Amiel, Creation clearly aspires for dramatic tension, and relies heavily on voice-over flashbacks as Darwin (Paul Bettany) recalls his worldly travels.
But even the best of Darwin’s anecdotes and memories aren’t that gripping, so Creation resorts to more artificial means of ramping up emotions. In effect, Creation becomes a field guide to clichéd, melodramatic filmmaking techniques. Does a scene feature “savages?” Cue tense, rhythmic music. Are we seeing a warm, familial memory? Throw a gentle piano nocturne behind it and play the scene back in slo-mo. Is the protagonist experiencing feelings of madness? By all means, shoot it with a dutch angle, lay on some color filters, and bring in the tense, shrill strings.
Of course, there was some organic drama in Darwin’s life. He was astutely aware of the controversial nature of his research and likely had some interesting conversations about it. But Creation pushes too hard here, too. When biologist Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) visits Darwin for an afternoon stroll, he’s unable to contain his enthusiasm for Darwin’s work, “You’ve killed God! You have killed God and I for one say good riddance to the old bugger!” Unfortunately, the outburst doesn’t convince us of Huxley’s feelings so much as announce the screenwriter as a second-rate ventriloquist.
Creation hits a stride in the story of Darwin’s daughter Annie, who died in 1851 after a prolonged sickness. The young Martha West plays Annie with surprising restraint, especially considering her melodramatic context. The haunting loss Darwin feels after her death is believable enough, but the film’s histrionics have blown any chance at a connection with the audience. And it’s a shame — for as long as Darwin’s survived, he deserves a stronger film.