Last weekend Sherry and I went to see Creation. An interesting juxtaposition to seeing Paul Bettany in Legion not long before. (Inside tip: at no point in the film does Hot Angel Bettany get topless like in the poster. Also, no hot gayngel action. Just FYI.)
Fascinating how Bettany didn’t even look like the same person in Creation. Also, Martha West, who played Annie Darwin, totally reminded me of Billie Piper. But that’s neither here nor there.
They set the movie during what would at first seem like an improbable time in Darwin’s life to make a movie about — post-Beagle voyage, pre-publication of On the Origin of Species, and at a time when he was, by all accounts, pretty miserable.
I’d known Darwin had a hard time with the ideas in his evolutionary theories, and with his wife’s beliefs (she was devoutly Christian). He tried to maintain his own Christian faith when evidence against God’s perfect creation was right in front of him (and all around him on the ship, in his study, in his dovecote…) I don’t know if it actually happened or not, but there’s a scene where his daughter comes home with bloody knees from being made to kneel on rock salt — her punishment from the local parson for contradicting him and insisting dinosaurs did exist, as her father said.
I hadn’t known, however, just what a mess Darwin’s mind and body were for so long. Apparently at any number of points in his life, including before he and Emma were married, pressures on him and his work caused his health to suffer. Of course, given his extensive global travels and the relatively primitive nature of medicine in those days, it’s certainly possible he picked up a chronic ailment or two as well. The deaths of three of his 10 children, including Annie, his favourite, couldn’t have helped his state, either.
The emotional torture he went through vacillating over whether to make his theory public is present throughout the story, and they also tie it closely to the demons he fought after the death of Annie, as well. She is his wife Emma’s foil in the story, as imaginative and excited about science and the natural world as his wife is opposed to its “dangers”. Even receiving correspondence from Alfred Russell Wallace, who comes to develop the same theory as Darwin, completely independently, don’t fully spur him to complete the book. Quite the opposite; Darwin seems relieved to be able to hand the mantle of “God-killer” to someone else.
It’s also interesting to consider the excitement with which many of Darwin’s contemporaries looked forward to the theory of evolution going public and changing everything. Though Darwin was astute enough to know what they didn’t seem to want to acknowledge — that science wasn’t going to kill God. Those, like his wife, who wanted to believe, would continue to do so, regardless of evidence. But even a few hundred years earlier, Darwin and anyone else who dared propose such theories would have been persecuted, tortured, and killed for such heresy.
Of course, in the end, Darwin’s health and psychological state improve, and the book gets written and published, thanks to Emma Darwin. (I hadn’t known that, either.) Darwin gives his wife the finished manuscript, asks her to read it, and leaves the decision of whether or not to publish it with her. A rather monumental offering, when you think of it. One of the biggest ideas in modern history could have ended up on a bonfire. Or had burning lamp oil spilled on it. Or fallen off the mail wagon into a ditch when it was sent to the publisher.
The constant head-butting of science and religion is a major theme throughout the movie, of course. But what was equally interesting was the head-butting between the beginnings of a new chapter in modern science and what seems like still-medieval medical practices.
The theory of evolution is about to change the world, and yet you’re still hearing the Darwin family doctor recommend increasing their sick daughter’s doses of mercury, or recommending bleeding. It’s fairly appalling. Or the Gully water cure, in which Darwin was apparently quite a believer, but which seems pretty bizarre nowadays. (Though I’m sure being doused by a deluge of cold water early in the morning is quite bracing…)
All in all, worth watching, and not quite as “quiet” a many English period films, blessedly. Though really, they could have made a film entirely comprised of Darwin’s tales from his travels and the scientific world around him and it would have been wonderful. (Like the tragic humanity of Jenny the orangutan.)