There is Grandeur in this Film

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on bushes, with various insects flirting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from one another, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth and Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” -Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

 This is the closing and concluding paragraph of the book in which Charles Darwin first postulated his theory of evolution by natural selection. For those unfamiliar with the theory, evolution, in a nutshell, is a step by step process (courtesy of Idea Center –

  1. Random mutations cause changes, variation, in a population of organisms.
  2. These different organisms then compete to survive and reproduce.
  3. Those which are best able to survive and reproduce do so, and tend to leave the most offspring. This is called “natural selection”.
  4. Over time, if some organisms evolve and reproduce more than others, a species will “evolve”.

The end product of this process, evolution, is that the species that is most able to adapt to its’ environment will survive. Evolution comes in the form of change over time in response to stimuli; as an environment changes, the organisms living in that environment will either adapt to the environment or they will die. The end result is the interconnectivity and common ancestry of all life. If one were to trace back the ancestry of man, one would eventually come to a single-celled organism – the same single cell that all life on this planet stemmed from. Before going further, I will say that the purpose of this post is to not prove the theory of evolution. Firstly, that has already been done and, secondly, this blog is not about science or biology; this blog is about films and filmmaking. The purpose of this post will be to review and analyze the film Creation, a biopic about Charles Darwin.

Spoilers shall follow:

This film is a very personal look at Charles Darwin; it examines the inner and external conflicts that he had when writing the Origin of Species. Darwin was a naturalist, who in the course of his work turned from Protestantism to Agnosticism. His deconversion from Christianity caused a rift with his wife, Emma Darwin, who viewed her husband’s work as heretical. Creation was directed by Jon Amiel and written by John Collee. It stars Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly (who are married in reality, having met during the production of  A Beautiful Mind) as Charles and Emma Darwin respectively, Toby Jones as Thomas Henry Huxley, Benedict Cumberbatch as Joseph Dalton Hooker, Jeremy Northam as Reverend John Brodie-Innes, and Martha West as Annie Darwin. The narrative is depicted in a nonlinear manner, with the film jumping back and forth between different points of Darwin’s life.

The film begins with Charles and his daughter Annie. Annie asks her father to tell her story. Charles recounts a tale of British sailors arriving in the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego and their subsequent encounter with an indigenous tribe. The natives wear little to know clothes, do not shave or trim their hair, and as Darwin described “never washed their hands or faces, not even before dinner”. The sailors make a trade of trinkets, which according to Darwin amounted to a total of two shillings, for three of the native children. The sailors took the children back to England where they taught them proper manners and Christian values. They were even taken to see the Queen, who was so impressed at the progress of their education. It was determined then that Christian values could tame even the most savage and uncivilized people. To conclude this experiment, the sailors, along with Darwin and a missionary, took the children back to Tierra del Fuego with hopes that the other natives may learn by their example. This proves disastrous. Upon arriving on the beach, the children strip of their clothes and run to join their fellow tribesmen. This story serves as a metaphor for the realization that Darwin comes to later in the film: that nature is ultimately untamable and no matter what sorts of plans that men attribute to nature, it will always remain so.

Charles’ relationship with his daughter Annie is one central to the film. Annie, like her father, had a scientific and inquisitive mind. Charles was immensely proud of his daughter’s spirit and saw in her a version of himself. Her death devastated him. In film, Annie Darwin’s death causes Darwin to become withdrawn from his family and to nearly abandon his work. Following her death, Annie serves as a representation of Darwin’s subconscious, questioning him as to why he procrastinating. Her death also serves as the catalyst for Darwin’s de-conversion. In an emotional scene, Darwin kneels in a quite chapel and directs his prayers to a stained-glass image of Christ. There he states that he will renounce his work and believe in God for the rest of his days if he would allow Annie to live. He pleads that if someone ought to die, it should be him. However, these prayers go unanswered, or at least answered negatively, as Annie dies soon after. It seems that Charles, at this low point of his life, came to truly understand the War of Nature and that mankind is by no means spared from it.

In addition to Darwin’s hallucinations of Annie egging him on to finish his work, we also have the characters of Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker. Both scientists whom in Darwin found confidants. Joseph Hooker was considered to be Darwin’s closest friend in life and their relationship in the film is one of support. Most of his scenes take place after the death of Charles’ daughter. Hooker notices that, in several ways, Darwin is no longer the same man. He has lost his ambition and his health is failing, however, Huxley continues to urge Darwin to publish his work not mindful of the cost it would bring to his health. While Huxley continues to bully Darwin into writing, Hooker remains a source of comfort. The portrayal of the character of Huxley is one of the few issues that I take with the film. This film is clearly an exaggerated version of the Darwin’s writing of Origin, that much is certain. In reality, Darwin was not nearly as tortured as he was in the film. In life, he was able to maintain a sense of optimism. There was likely not any open hostility between him and his wife over the writing of the book; though the disagreed, Darwin and Emma had a relatively happy marriage. However, these changes were necessary for the film. Whenever history is adapted to film, such changes are always necessary. In the case, if we had a film about a man happily writing then that would make for a rather boring film. Thats why I am okay with most of the historical deviations in the movie except for the portrayal of Thomas Huxley. In the trailer, Huxley speaks the line, one that disturbs Darwin in the film ” Clearly the Almighty can no longer claim to have authored every species in under a week. You’ve killed God, sir.” It is this line that I take issue with. My issue is not necessarily that it was said at all, indeed there would have been many who would have said something along similar lines in response to Darwin’s work. I take issue with the fact that it was Thomas Huxley who said it. From what I have read about Thomas Huxley, my understanding is that he would not have been so militant. While he passionately supported Darwin’s theory (his fervent defense of the theory earned him the nickname of “Darwin’s Bulldog”) I do not think that he had such an antagonistic view of a religion and the belief in a deity. After all, it was Huxley who coined the term “agnostic”.

I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter…

Given his views that it would be impossible to confirm or deny the existence of a deity with material evidence, I do not believe that he would have ever gone so far to declare that Darwin’s theory had “killed God”. Huxley, himself, though he may not have had faith in one, admitted there was no way to prove that there was ever a god to kill in the first place. This change, in my mind, does amount to a character assassination. However, it does not ruin the film for me as the focus of this film is not on Huxley, it is on Darwin. On the other hand, I do understand why Collee chose to write Huxley’s character in this manner. Collee must have felt it necessary to give voice to some of the more militant sentiments inspired by Darwin’s work as it would be a source of development for the character of Charles. In the film, Charles is portrayed as deeply conflicted by such sentiments and such confliction drives the story further. I agree wholeheartedly that these sentiments were necessary to express in the film, however, I disagree in the decision to have them expressed by the character of Thomas Huxley.

Perhaps the most important relationship in the film is that of Charles and Emma. The film shows that at one time they were happily married. However, as Darwin continued his scientific work Emma became worried for his immortal soul. She believes that for his scientific revolution, she will be “separated from him for an eternity”.  A further rift is driven between them after the death of their daughter Annie, as Emma is likely quite disturbed by the notion that her husband no longer acknowledges a belief that her daughter’s soul has found salvation. Indeed, the idea of the War of Nature can be discomforting and Emma represents that discomfort in the audience. However, the film comes to a high note immediately following a heated argument between the couple. After finally being able to talk to one another about the death of their daughter, Emma and Charles re-consummate their marriage. It is with the love and emotional support of his wife that Charles is able to overcome his poor health and continue writing. Finally, Charles decides that “someone must take God’s side”. After finishing his book he gives it to Emma to read and allows her to decide the fate of the book. She at this point has the choice before her to destroy an idea in its infancy that she believes would divide men against each other. However, she elects to have it sent to a publish. Whether she does so merely to support her husband or whether she to came so see that there was grandeur in that view of life, is unknown. The last shot of the film takes place just after the parcel containing the manuscript for the Origin of Species is been taken to its destination by a local postman. Darwin watches is it carries on unaware of the revolution that it would bring and the wealth of knowledge that would be revealed to us in the centuries to come. He walks back to his house and to his family with a vision of little Annie walking beside him.

I do think that there are few ways in which the film could have been improved however. As mentioned before, I do wish that Huxley had been portrayed in a different manner. Also, I believe that the setting of the film could have been expanded. There are only a few snippets that show Charles on his expeditions. I believe that the film would have benefited from showing us parts of his voyage on the HMS Beagle, as that would have given a chance to show off what Darwin was most passionate about: nature. However, the ultimate purpose of the film I believe was to portray Darwin first and foremost as a husband and a father. Thusly, the majority of the film takes place at Down House and in the surrounding village. From that perspective, the choice to limit the film to Darwin’s domestic life makes perfect sense.

Overall, I found the film to be very emotional and, though sad at times, ultimately heartwarming. Those who are enthusiastic about science and naturalism will enjoy the film as they will get the opportunity to see one of the most revolutionary ideas in all science to evolve itself on screen.