Year of Release: 2009
Date Viewed: September 29th, 2010
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Is it possible that God does not have a plan for everything? World renowned scientist Charles Darwin challenges the Almighty in the BBC-produced Creation. Evolution would have probably been a more sensible title, but Ivan Reitman already called dibs on that one.
Paul Bettany is cast as Darwin, portrayed here as a humble and worried man. His work as a scientist is just as important to him as family. He is embarking on a revolutionary task of discovering an alternative theory to the origin of life as we know it. His work is destined to become an influential research book titled "On the Origin of Species."
After his beloved eldest daughter Annie (Martha West) dies from complications related to Scarlet Fever, Darwin is unsure what kind of a sign it may be. Is God punishing him for daring to challenge his word? Or is the tragedy just further evidence that not everything happens for a reason?
Adding further stress in his life is Darwin's wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who uses her religious upbringing and dinner prayers to grieve over the loss of their daughter. Darwin came from religious background himself but is growing more distant from the weekly sermons as his research brings about new ideas. His goal is not to make anyone angry and he still respects his peers' beliefs. But his desire for truth is stronger than anything.
Darwin has such a difficult time coping with the loss of Annie that he begins to have hallucinations of her. Nightmares also arrive, one of which has Annie's ghost directly blaming him for her death. Torn between his family loyalty and his conscience, it may ultimately be up to Emma if "On the Origin of Species" will ever see the light of day.
Even though Darwin's story is a battle between science and religion, the movie focuses more on Darwin's struggles with himself. I was expecting and hoping for some interesting debates supporting the different points of view. Then I realized that a movie like that would end up redundant. All the information that can be learned on the theories can be easily researched. Spoon-feeding it to an audience would only cement the film as a college course visual aid. That's why it needed a story that cannot be found in a textbook. How one man tries to win the respect of both his colleagues and his skeptics.
We do not see Darwin in his lab very often. He spends most of his screen time communicating with his wife and daughter, alternating present and flashback scenes. Annie has a fascination with sad stories and requests her father to re-tell one of her favorite tales about an orangutan separated from its natural habitat. Emma is getting fed up with her husband's nightmares and demands that he seeks help. But what Darwin needs help with most is battling his religious dilemma. Loss of faith is never an easy thing to deal with and the movie captures this inner struggle very well.
Although I don't expect many people of faith to watch this movie, they should be aware that some manipulative plot devices are used. One such device helps justify Darwin's frustration with the church. A priest forces Annie to kneel in rock salt after she debates the creation process of some species with him. I have no doubt that many religious extremists like this priest exist, especially in Darwin's time. But since the movie has no pro-evolution characters who behave this intolerant, it becomes an uneven picture.
Bettany and Connelly have a much-needed positive chemistry. They ought to, as they are real life husband and wife. Their soap opera-esque scenes are well acted but suffer from overlong duration. The scenes between father and daughter are much better since they have a variety in narrative structure and Annie's personality is charming despite her dark traits. Most of the family conflict scenes work overall, so the movie works.
Whether you believe in Darwin's research or not, he deserves respect for his courage. The film does a good enough job elaborating that point. Not only did he have the gumption to challenge everything that his faith taught him, he gave it the middle finger. His devotion to the science he believed in was strong enough to overcome his fear of damnation. Even Darwin's church seemed to have recognized his strong character. According to the information provided by the film's epilogue, Darwin was buried at Westminster Abbey with full Christian honors.