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October 5, 2009

Oh, do I have to declare where I stand before we can start? OK. I suppose this will become more and more common. Right; I’m one of those liberal, rational types, who sides with the scientifically-minded evolutionists. Is that what you wanted? So…through the door, first on the left, in with the comedians, chat show hosts and lifestyle column writers..? Gotcha.

I fear that discourse will eventually come to that. Eventually you’ll just have to swipe a card and you’ll be channeled off into your proscribed section of the internet and only allowed to play with people you get along with. Not here and now, I hope, but if you’re that way inclined, at least now you can decide whether or not you want to read on.

Creation, famously unable to find a distributor in the US, for whatever reason (although Reason wasn’t anywhere in the room at the time), now has at least a limited roll-out to a handful of screens Stateside. Whether or not that means you now think we’re approaching a new Dark Age isn’t really the point; the controversy has, unfortunately overshadowed a wonderfully affecting human story. Indeed, contrary to popular opinion, the film does not have at its core a strident anti-God message, nor does it rail in tub-thumping style against all and every religion, and it is most certainly not a call to arms to burn Creationist text books (or Bibles, as they’re known) in the streets. Admittedly, the famous Biologist Thomas Huxley (a terrific Toby Jones cameo) gets to say, “you have killed God, sir!” but this is largely dismissed as the exhortation of a fiery little fellow, urging the debate into areas that the film doesn’t particularly want to go. No, Creation, the movie, isn’t against Religion.

What it is, is a story about common human emotions, about love and loss and the crippling fear of taking steps that you know will change forever your relationship with the world. It just so happens that the person, whose story it tells, is Charles Darwin.

When we start, Darwin (a career-best Paul Bettany) has already returned from his voyage on the Beagle, and indeed long since had “the most dangerous idea in the world”. He has come home, and written up his notes, and then procrastinated over his ideas. His documents are packed in a locked box and he spends his time debating with himself over what he has done. The main thrust of this debate centres around his fears for the reaction of his devout wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and the relationship Darwin has with his beloved daughter, Annie (Martha West).

In effect, Annie is the centre of the film. She’s certainly the centre of Charles Darwin. Wide-eyed, and sharp as a tack, West (daughter of The Wire‘s Dominic) provides the emotional heart of the film. Told in a series of extended flashbacks, all beautifully dove-tailed into the present, we see just how much Darwin loves his eldest child, how galvanised he is by her spark and inquisitiveness, and how devastated he is by her death at ten years old from scarlet fever. Throughout, incapable of letting her go, she appears to him, and implores him to open the box where he has locked his documents. Crushed and broken by the loss, he is incapable of finishing his work, and even if he could, he is wracked with the worry of what that completion would achieve.

Darwin’s difficult resolutions provide the story with an almost overwhelming sense of personal tragedy, and it would be wrong not to emphasise just how unrelentingly sad a tale this is. Hunched, with all the woes of the world on his shoulders, for they are universal woes in every respect, Bettany fills every scene with a resonant dignity and grace, and it would take a heart evolved from purest granite not to be moved by his troubles. This is a grown-up, elaborate and subtle film, filled with ideas. Yes, the ideas are, inevitably, sometimes about Evolution and Religion, but that is a sideshow to the real issue of how to deal with the deepest conflicts of the human heart.

And why would you want to miss out on that, whatever else you believe in?

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