Sunday, September 27, 2009

First thoughts on "Creation"

Yesterday afternoon, I went to see "Creation", the new film out centred on Charles Darwin's relationships with his wife and his daughter, Annie. I guess I am in a unique position in writing this as I am sitting about two hundred yards from Montreal House in Malvern, where Annie died in 1851 and I live on land that was once part of the estate of the Lodge, the house in which Darwin and his family (including Annie) stayed for a few months in 1849.

But geographical proximity is not the real issue here--I have been far too close psychologically and intellectually to Darwin and his life, and Annie's role in it, for far too long to ever approach the movie as most viewers will. With that in mind, I was preparing to be disappointed, but in fact for the most part I enjoyed the movie, as did my children, because I remembered to tell myself that it was a work of imagination not historical biography.

There are lots of minor historical inaccuracies in the film, but as Eugenie Scott has pointed out, "Creation" will bring many aspects of Darwin's life, particularly his family life, to a wider audience, including the tragic loss of his daughter here in Malvern and the misery of his chronic illness. The acting is great, particularly Martha West as Annie and real husband and wife team Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Charles and Emma. And the lavish cinematography is a treat.

There were two things in the film I did not like. One was the way in which it flitted from one part of Darwin's life to another, back and forth across the decades. I would have preferred a simpler narrative. But more problematic was the way in which the film inter-linked Darwin's various struggles, intellectual and emotional, when as far as I am aware they were never linked. For example, there is no evidence that the death of Annie Darwin had any effect whatsoever on Darwin's work on the Origin of Species. And it is unclear to me whether differences in attitude to religion between Charles and Emma Darwin, which were clearly raised as an issue around the time of their marriage, persisted as a problem in their relationship as late as the film suggests, i.e. into the late 1850s. I may be wrong and will have to look into this, but the level of emotional intensity on Darwin's part in the film on this issue strikes me as off-kilter.

But all-in-all, a good film which I advise you to go and see! At the very least, it will banish the tired icon of Darwin as merely an old man with a bushy beard!


Bordalejo said...

As requested, here is what I wrote in Facebook:

"I would have loved to watch it with you, as I was facing some comparable issues. I had to remind myself, over and over, "This is not a documentary."
Of course, having seen the manuscripts, I smiled at the overly clear handwriting and at the certainty with which the text was put to paper. I was also bothered by Emma's position and thought that it would have been really sad for such a man to be married to such a woman (fortunately, this is just part of the treatment of a character in the script).
Unlike you, I enjoyed the structure of the film and was surprised to see how beautifully it fit together from that perspective. Very few films have a truly consistent structure and this one is the exception to that rule."

I have been thinking about whether the film was too sentimental or not (mostly because someone else suggested it was). I am sure that most commonly, the death of a young child would have a deep sentimental impact (to achieve a different effect, would be very difficult). Because the film does not try to be a historic representation, but rather a retelling of history, it is important to understand the way in which the story links ideas together. In the film, Darwin concludes that Annie's death is related to his marriage to Emma (so the pigeon breeder explains how weakness creeps in when closely related animals are bred) and so, it becomes imperative for the character to exorcise those demons.

Perhaps, it is sentimental, but the script requires causes for actions (or lack of action). The link between Darwin's writing of the Origin and Annie's death might not be historically accurate, but the script requires it.

Jonathan Badger said...

Well, of course the movie would include the whole "Annie myth" -- the script even credits the book "Annie's Box" as the source material. Given that you've written criticisms of that book already, I wouldn't have expected you to like that part.

(I haven't seen the movie yet myself, but probably will, given the chance, even though I largely agree with you over the lack of evidence that Annie's death had anything to do with Darwin's work)