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Charles Darwin … the Movie

by Michael Shermer, Jan 26 2010

A review of Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin. Starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. Jon Amiel Director, Jeremy Thomas Producer, John Collee writer. Recorded Picture Company with BBC Films and Ocean Pictures. Based on Randal Keynes’s book Annie’s Box. In general release January 22, 2010.

Creation movie poster

Creation is one of the most beautifully produced, artfully directed, factually accurate, and powerfully acted biopic films ever made. Full stop. It stars Paul Bettany as the Charles Darwin almost no one knows (and looking almost eerily similar if you match him to portraits of Darwin at that time), and Jennifer Connelly as the Emma Darwin almost invisible to history (and whose stunning Hollywood beauty is forgotten as she morphs into a realistic portrayal of a 19th century Englishwoman). The script is based on Randal Keynes’s biographical work, Annie’s Box, a moving portrait of the middle-aged Darwin—after the five-year voyage of the Beagle and before the white-bearded sage of Down basked in scientific triumph—as he struggled intellectually and emotionally to put the pieces of natural history together into a cogent theory. It is also about Charles Darwin the man, husband and father, besieged by health problems that curtailed his work days to only a few hours, stressed by the normal strains of marriage, and agonizing over the death from a mysterious disease of his beloved 10-year old daughter.

The film opens with the capture and return of indigenous natives of Tierra del Fuego, in the hopes that such “savages” could be saved by culture (British of course) and seeded to their native lands to spread the Queen’s English (and manners) and save their souls for God and country. (Of course, the Fuegians promptly ripped their clothes off and returned to the lifestyle appropriate for their culture.) Thankfully, the film wisely steers wide of the myth that Darwin discovered natural selection in the Galapagos Islands, and instead reveals what really happened (and what almost always happens in science) in Darwin’s halting and desultory steps to putting all the pieces of his theory together over many years after his return to England.

The hindsight bias that dictates so much of historical reconstruction—where every step along the way is pregnant with meaning for what we know is coming—is mercifully absent in Creation. Instead we find a Darwin unsure of himself. He doesn’t know what we know, and the films takes us on the intellectual journey of discovery with Darwin, as he also tries to balance work with family life and his incessant physical problems that finds him on regular visits to the town of Malvern to undergo James Manby Gully’s water cure therapy—what we would today call quack science—involving a naked Darwin standing in a shower-like stall being bombarded by waves of water. Presumably the shock to the system would shake up his innards enough to cure him. It didn’t.

The leitmotif of Creation, however, is not evolution so much as it is life and death and love. The love of a man and a woman, the love of a father and a child, and the life and death of an idea (God) and a child (Annie). Darwin has many children (almost everyone did in his time), but he was especially fond of his eldest daughter Annie, and one part of the leitmotif is Darwin’s recounting to her of the story of the death of Jenny, a young orangutan captured in Borneo and transported to the London Zoo, where it subsequently died of pneumonia in the arms of her caretaker. It’s a metaphor, of course, for Annie dying in the arms of her father, in a hotel room in Malvern when Darwin took her there for a worthless water cure therapy treatment. Since I have a daughter about whom I feel the same way Darwin did for his beloved Annie, the scene where Darwin subsequently returns to the Malvern hotel room and sobs uncontrollably on the bed where Annie died was so empathically painful that I could barely sit through it. And the portrayal of the strain Annie’s death puts the Darwin marriage through is surely not an exaggeration.

The other stress in Darwin’s marriage was his science and Emma’s religion. Darwin knew that people would think that his theory, in Thomas Huxley’s words, “killed god,” and he also knew that this fact would pain his wife, who worried for her husband’s soul to the point that she wrote him letters to that effect. It is, in fact, the likeliest reason why Darwin avoided the growing conflict between science and religion. Toward the end of his life he received many letters querying him on his religious attitudes. Darwin’s long-silence gave way to a few revelations. In one letter penned in 1879, just three years before he died, Darwin explained: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.”

A year later, in 1880, Darwin clarified his reasoning to the British socialist Edward Aveling, who solicited Darwin’s endorsement of a group of radical atheists. Darwin declined the offer, elaborating his reason: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.” Emma was a deeply religious woman, so out of love and respect for her, Darwin kept the public side of his religious skepticism in check, an admirable feat of self-discipline by a man of high moral character.

Go see this beautiful film about such an estimable man, an honorable woman, and an enduring love.

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Charles Darwin … the Movie, 4.8 out of 5 based on 33 ratings

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27 Responses to “Charles Darwin … the Movie”

  1. TJ says:

    Well, this is new. I’ve yet to see a positive review of this movie. That includes the one I saw on WEIT.

  2. science-based humanist says:

    Good, bad or indifferent, I want to see it and can’t believe it’s not opening in Chicago! Will wait for DVD.

    • Sgerbic says:

      I hadn’t heard of this movie until my friend Paulina texted me to go see it with her. Then the major disappointment, it is no where near Salinas. I have to go to San Francisco (two hours north). Yuck.

      I’m flying to L.A. Wednesday night and hope that somewhere there it is playing.

      • Paulina says:

        If anyone is in the LA area they are showing it at

        The Landmark

        10850 West Pico Blvd.

        Los Angeles CA, 90064

        San Fransico area:
        Embarcadero Center Cinemas

        1 Embarcadero Center

        San Francisco CA, 94111

        415-352-0835

  3. steelsheen11b says:

    Bettany has plenty of experience playing Darwin since his Master and Commander character was more or less Darwin.

  4. SicPreFix says:

    Doubling up on what TJ said: This is the first positive review I’ve read. The following quote pretty much sums up what many of the reviews I’ve read had to say about Creation:

    “Amiel has reduced a crucial moment in science to a Lifetime weepie about a workaholic who needs personal tragedy to wake him up to his wife’s virtues.”

  5. bigjohn756 says:

    I live in East Texas. It will never show anywhere near here. I will have to wait for the DVD.

  6. Paulina says:

    Last night in Nightline news they were discussing the Creation movie an they interviewed someone from a museum I never heard of called The Creation Museum they commented on how they like how Darwin was portrayed as a family & religious man & how he never steered away from religion. The interview was weird to me and it made no sence why were they interviewing a religious musium? Shouldn’t they have interviewed a scholar?

  7. gwen says:

    I want to try to see it in SF. I will be buying the DVD whether I see it in the theater or not!

  8. Atomsk says:

    We watched it at my secular students group, but we thought it was a creationist movie so when the lights went low I yelled out “spoiler alert, God did it”

  9. Skepacabra says:

    I believe Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education also had a very positive review of the film. I’ve also seen it and thought the film was great. I’ve heard others suggest that Darwin’s constantly being haunted by his daughter throughout the film makes him look crazy but I think this is a superficial criticism as this dramatic device has been around for at least hundreds of years.

  10. Skepacabra says:

    Oh, and some obscure film critic named Roger Ebert praised the film too.

  11. Donald Clarkson says:

    An excellent review of an outstanding film! Fundamentalist rationalists expecting a science documentary might well be disappointed by it but they, especially, should take heed of its content, and that of the final paragraphs of this review. My only qualm concerning the film is a cynical doubt that such wonderful people ever lived.

  12. Donald Clarkson says:

    I ruined the rating! I clicked in the middle of the line of stars – expecting a pop-up to appear – and thus voted ’3′ instead of ’5′.

  13. VirtuallyGrey says:

    I’m delighted to see that this excellent film appears now to be available in the US. When it was released in here in the UK 6 months or so ago it was reported that no US distributor would take the risk of handling it …!

  14. rustle says:

    It might be helpful for people who expect the movie to be a skeptical screed to take Randy Olson’s advice and stop being such scientists. Its not surprising nor a bad thing that someone making a movie about Darwin tried to make it entertaining or emotional in order that people might actually want to see it, even without being predisposed to the message within.

  15. MKR says:

    I’ve seen the movie. It is certainly not a bad one, but it is not a particularly good one either. A. O. Scott’s review in the New York Times is, I think, rather one-sided in its severity, but not unfair. I predict that viewers who have a great enthusiasm for Darwin but not much critical discrimination will enjoy the movie as much as Mr. Shermer did.

  16. GDA Germany says:

    Reading between the lines of the above comments it seems as if the film is being voluntarily censored by the cinemas’ and that en masse. Is this due to religious sensibility of the cinema paying mob? What an indictment of America’s freedom of speech and freedom of choice. Not to mention education. I am probably preaching to the converted, but shame on you America!

  17. Badger says:

    That Ebert fella will never amount to nothin.

    I saw this film. It’s a good message… that Darwin was quite human, and very much understood the implications of his undertaking. While quite at odds with his religious counterparts, but despite his abandonment of earlier theological aspirations (and religion for himself) had no intention of making enemies of religious persons, as would others in his position. They simply brought their personal demons to him, and when they did, received the rebuking they deserved.

  18. bill says:

    The “Creation Museum” is in(I’m ashamed to admit) northern Ky. It is a blot on the state but the misguided still flock to it. Why they interviewed a spokesperson from the place is a mystery. Why not interview a few of the snakehandlers from eastern Ky.

  19. Mark P says:

    “Creation” is not showing in the St. Louis area.
    The Midwest is full of humans that have not evolved, still walking on their knuckles…but yet denying evolution

  20. Gerald Guild says:

    Michael,
    The name of the movie is provocative. I am wondering if this is the sole reason for naming it such, or is there another reason? I must say I am delighted by your review. As others have mentioned, the critic’s reviews have been neutral at best. As an admirer of Darwin, whose courage and dedication to the truth changed the world, I will see this film regardless of the reviews. Any insight as to why it has been released on such a limited scale (fear of controversy, cost, etc.)?

  21. bobsully says:

    I saw Creation today and loved it. I think having a background in the life and achievements of Darwin, added to my enjoyment and understanding. It’s not a documentary, its a story of his struggle with truth and the promise and repercussions it would have on those he loved. I highly recommend it.

  22. alex says:

    i cant wait for the DVD. i think theirs a endless supply of scientist related info on Darwin and his research. but not enough on him as a person. i want to know who he really was.

  23. the great thing about jennifier connelly is that she still looks hot eventhough she is already a bit old these days ”

  24. Nathan Jonfield says:

    Genesis 2:21-22, “And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. “