Sunday, December 11, 2011


I had a chance to see the film Creation (2009) last week and I found it a surprisingly beautiful dramatization of the central conflict in the life of Charles Darwin: the devout religious faith of his beloved wife, Emma, to which the scientific discoveries that he wrote about in his great book, On the Origin of Species, was a direct challenge. Darwin's book, which is as much a masterpiece of imaginative thinking as of scientific discovery, was a bomb dropped on Christianity from which it hasn't recovered since.

The film is based on Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution, a novel by Darwin's great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes. He wrote it after discovering in 2000 a box in which Charles and Emma Darwin had collected mementos of Annie, their eldest daughter. It concentrates on the close relationship between Darwin and Annie, whose death at the age of ten haunted him and his wife for the rest of their lives. At the time of her death, Darwin wrote: "We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age.... Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face." (1) Annie's health had been seriously weakened by scarlet fever, but some believe it was tuberculosis that eventually killed her.

Darwin himself submitted Annie to some horrific treatments such as "Gully's Water Cure", which included excruciating cold water hoseings and "spine-scrubbings" that, if anything, deprived the poor girl of what strength she had left to resist the disease that killed her. Her death drove Charles and Emma apart - he, repulsed by the prospect of his daughter's salvation or damnation by an implacable God in an utterly cruel cosmology (2), she into deeper and deeper religious neurosis.

Yet on behalf of Emma's religious convictions, Charles delayed the submission of his manuscript nearly twenty years, fearing it would drive Emma away entirely. As the film shows us, however, it was she who, after reading his manuscript, at last allowed him to publish it. Worriedly waiting for her verdict, she hands him a parcel wrapped in brown paper, addressed to the publisher John Murray.

Paul Bettany plays Darwin as he appeared in 1859, the year of On the Origin of Species' publication. I have seen him in several films, most of them, of course, dreadful. In Creation, however, he is graceful and sensitively intelligent, which is precisely how the filmmakers wanted us to see Darwin. Jennifer Connolly, as Emma, makes Charles devotion to her quite believable. I've been infatuated with her since her days as a child star. She, too, has had to endure a careerful of awful scripts. It is good to see her talent matched with a substantive script. The girl who plays Annie, Martha West, is quite moving, as she endures the hardships of health with which nature saddled Annie.

Some critics fussed over the film's title, thinking it was a sop to placate the stupid "creationists". I think it had more to do with Darwin's act of creating his magnificent book, which is a work of splendid prose as much as it is of scientific research. The "creation" of that book occupied him for fifteen years after his return from his voyages on HMS Beagle. The film reminds us that scientists are also human beings.

Not surprising me in the least were the claims of the film's producer, Jeremy Thomas, that he had trouble finding an American distributor. The effects of Charles Darwin's book are still troubling to a majority of Americans.

(1) Quoted by Janet Browne in her book, Charles Darwin: A Biography, Volume 1, Voyaging (New York: Alfred A Knopf).
(2) In a now-famous passage from his autobiography, Charles stated: "I hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."

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