Film review – Creation (2009)

15 July 2010
Creation: Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany)

Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany)

Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origins of Species was a breakthrough scientific text that presented concrete evidence on the theories of evolution. While Darwin’s research and writing of the book are at the centre of Creation, the film is mainly concerned with Darwin’s private life and his inner struggles coming to grips with what his research will mean to society and his family. As one supporter enthusiastically tells him, “You have killed God” and yet Darwin is portrayed as man wrestling with the implications of God not being real, coming to terms with his own loss of faith and trying to re-connect with his religious wife. Far from being a conventional biopic of a famous historical figure, Creation is an emotionally complex film that examines faith, love, grief and passion through the key events that propelled Darwin to finish one of the most important books ever written.

In order to avoid the usual narrative trappings of biopics (the rise then fall then rise again of the protagonist) Creation is non-lineal, cutting predominantly between two distinctly different phases in Darwin’s life while incorporating his various stories about the natural world and humanity’s attempts to understand it. The younger version of Darwin in the film is a happy and enthusiastic man who loves his family. The later version of Darwin is a sickly man who is consumed by his work. Inter-cutting between the two time periods means that we get an even mixture of the curious and warm younger Darwin with the tired and distant older Darwin. While the incident that has caused this change in him is strategically hidden until towards the end, it is slowly made apparent rather than suddenly revealed, giving the film a significant degree of restraint and credibility for treating the audience with intelligence.

Creation: Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and Emma Darwin (Jennifer Connelly)

Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and Emma Darwin (Jennifer Connelly)

Paul Bettany gives an outstanding performance as Darwin, conveying the mental anguish that Darwin suffered over what he was doing. He comes across as a complex figure who on the one hand develops an understanding of how similar humans are to the animal kingdom, allowing him considerable empathy towards animals, but he has no problem raising birds to simply kill them for his various studies. He feels compelled to challenge the authority of the church and yet recognises its social value. As his wife Emma Darwin, Jennifer Connelly initially comes across simply as a disapproving and uptight obstacle but as the film evolves her character is more fleshed out. The strain that her and Darwin’s differing attitudes toward religion put on their relationship is a moving component of the overall film.

Creation does not present a comprehensive history of the life and times of Charles Darwin. Instead, it gives an impression of the emotional, intellectual and spiritual mechanisms of his mind and how it all impacted upon his work and his family. There are scenes where the audience looks through his eyes to see the natural world at work, with its endless cycle of life, death and decay. These sequences are disturbing, captivating and strangely beautiful. The real highlights are the stories that Darwin tells to his daughter Annie, especially the incredibly sad story of Jenny the orangutan. Told across two sequences, it is a story that really expresses the humanity that inspired Darwin to do what he did and it is this humanity that is the focus of Creation.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

27 December 2008

The original 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the all time great classical Hollywood films. It was the first significant Hollywood science fiction film and one of the first films to ideologically engage with the political climate at the time by tackling anti-Communist/Cold War paranoia. Despite its big budget it was a narrative driven film with more emphasis placed on dramatic action rather than spectacle and effects. The eclectic and reliable director Robert Wise, who began his career in film as the editor for Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), directed the film and the legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the music. Herrmann’s use of the theremin for the music in The Day the Earth Stood Still was hugely influential, making the theremin the standard sound for all science fiction soundtracks throughout the 1950s. The idea of remaking such a definitive and important film seems at first glance to be incredibly foolhardy, however this new 2008 film should not be automatically dismissed. It is by no means as good as the original but by taking the central premise of the original and maintaining its core ideology in order to address contemporary issues, this remake becomes a film that is worth considering.

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