Despite its increasing presence in public debate, the battle between evolutionism and creationism seldom surfaces in popular entertainment. That fact lends an automatic novelty to “Creation,” which portrays a Charles Darwin agonizing over whether to unveil the ideas that will upset — to say the least — his own and future generations of religious believers. But this handsome historical piece starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Mr. and Mrs. Darwin isn’t about science vs. faith so much as that well-worn dramatic hook, the loss of a child. Likely to earn just respectable critical support, the Toronto opener looks to be a medium specialty performer.
Opening title says the concepts detailed in “The Origin of Species” (published in 1859) have “been called the biggest idea in the history of thought. This is how it came to be written.” Yet John Collee’s screenplay, based on nonfiction tome “Annie’s Box” by Darwin descendent Randal Keynes, accords the original book, its content and research far less importance than the conflict among the Darwins themselves, despite attempts by both the script and director Jon Amiel to integrate scientific and domestic threads.
In the present tense (mid-1850s), Bettany’s 40ish Darwin is depressed and physically feeble, inattentive to both work and family; the source of this is clearly grief over the death of his favorite child at age 10. In flashbacks, we see the close relationship between him and young Annie (Martha West), who shares his unsentimental fascination with the natural world. Her illness and demise devastate both Charles and Emma (Connelly), causing the former to lose any remaining religious faith while the latter clings more strongly to hers.
Both parents have guilt issues around Annie’s passing (as married first cousins, the Darwins feared their children might be genetically inclined toward poor health), but Emma has managed to pull herself together for the sake of their surviving children. (The Darwins had 10, two dying young.) She both worries over and resents Charles’ distracted, weakened removal from family life since Annie’s passing. Meanwhile, fellow scientific enthusiasts Huxley (Toby Jones) and Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) urge the country-house-bound recluse to finish “Origin,” latter happily anticipating its publication will “kill God” — precisely the reaction Darwin fears, largely due to the opposition of his devout wife and their good friend Rev. Innes (Jeremy Northam).
Amiel, demonstrating some of the visual panache more creatively deployed in earlier work (“Queen of Hearts,” the “Singing Detective” mini) than later genre projects “The Core” or “Entrapment,” finds opportunities to illustrate theories of natural selection and such in brief montages, sometimes deploying digital and time-lapse effects. But despite that and pleasant (if modestly scaled) period trappings, “Creation” feels somewhat static in storytelling terms. Once basic conflicts are established, we simply wait for Darwin to come to terms with his grief, marriage and imminent notoriety. Not much “happens,” though the pic does its best to maintain energy in both physical presentation and mixed-chronology structure.
Leads are also a little monotonous: Bettany is appealing but this Charles is at times nearly a sickly bore, while Connelly, not an actor with much lightness, is OK but emphasizes Emma’s grave concern and disapproval to the exclusion of nearly every other quality. (The real Mrs. Darwin was a highly accomplished person in her own right.) In the weird tradition of so many real-life acting couples, onscreen these two stars don’t have much chemistry.
Supporting players are aptly cast if underused; screen debutante West, however, gets a little too much screen time (as both living little girl and ghost), Annie being written/played as the kind of wise, winsome, uber-precocious child that feels like a product of adult ventriloquism.
The English countryside looks gorgeous in Jess Hall’s widescreen lensing, topping solid design contributions in a costume piece without crowd scenes or sumptuous interiors. Tech packaging is fine. In some spots Christopher Young’s melancholy string-centric orchestral score owes a considerable debt to Arvo Part’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.”