‘Creation’: Natural Man, By Kurt Loder

Darwin, the movie — a good idea in theory.

You’d figure that formulating the basics of evolutionary biology would involve some hard traveling, both mental and nautical. But sweat cures? Stuffed-bird riots? Little ghostie girls chattering in a corner? Who knew about that stuff?

Director Jon Amiel’s “Creation” is an imaginative approach to an impossible project. First, it undertakes to tell the story of the naturalist Charles Darwin’s 20-year struggle with the research that became “On the Origin of Species,” his world-changing book about the way in which plants and animals have evolved over the ages through a process that Darwin called natural (as opposed to divine) selection. The movie also sketches in the five-year-long, globe-girdling voyage during which he collected the compendious data for his book, along with much peripheral information about his health (wretched), his relationship with his devoutly religious wife (strained) and his apparently never-ending connection to his dead 10-year-old daughter (feverish). This is a lot of material to pack into 108 minutes, and “Creation” goes lumpy in attempting it.

The first problem any movie must face in depicting a famous writer is that there’s nothing interesting about watching a person sitting at a desk staring at a blank sheet of paper, a process usually enlivened only by occasional fits of grumbling and the hurling of inkpots across the room. So Amiel wisely focuses on Darwin the man, at home in his country house in the years following his return from the sea. In this he is assisted by a fine, smoothly integrated cast: Paul Bettany as Darwin; Jennifer Connelly (Bettany’s wife ) as the author’s wife, Emma; and, most entertainingly, little Martha West playing the daughter, Annie, both in the here-and-now and in her surprisingly lively afterlife.

To whip up some action around his largely sedentary subject, Amiel devotes much time to Darwin’s health problems — the mysterious palpitations, pains and tremors that regularly disrupted his work. In an age in which a typical prescription might involve taking a swig of mercury and calling back in the morning, Darwin’s affliction defied diagnosis. (It remains unexplained to this day.) So we watch him seeking relief in vain by drinking laudanum and undergoing sweat sessions, body scrubs and hydrotherapy. (The shot of him standing in a high-ceilinged chamber as torrents of water come pouring down on him is one of the movie’s many striking images.)

Darwin was also distressed by the implication of his theory — that nature works in autonomous ways, with God’s contribution possibly overstated. (As one character says to him, “What if the whole world stopped believing that God has a plan for us?”) Originally a believer himself, he was finally pushed over the edge into agnosticism by Annie’s death (which also made him wonder if her own ill health was the result of his marriage to Emma, who was his first cousin).

The movie has the polished veneer of a prestigious British TV bio; fortunately, it’s enriched by a procession of radiant, dream-like sequences, some set on the remote islands Darwin visited on his famous journey, others in his workshop-laboratory (where the above-mentioned stuffed birds, displayed under a bell jar, suddenly come to furious life) and others in the natural world with which he so happily communed. (At one instructively compressed point we follow a rat scurrying into a burrow filled with writhing worms; a bird pokes its head in, snatches one of them and flies up to its nest, unintentionally dislodging a chick, which falls to the ground, dies, and is swarmed by insects that strip its body to the bone before being consumed themselves by a caterpillar.)

Given the intelligence with which the picture was made, it’s a shame the story never quite coheres — it’s torn between elements of domestic drama, theological disputation and evolutionary science; and despite the welcome spriteliness of West’s performance, the continual reappearance of her deceased Anna to carry on supportive conversations with her father mostly confuses things. After a while, the movie begins to lumber, and it never quite regains its legs. It fails, in any satisfactory way, to evolve.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “The White Ribbon,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Creation.”

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