(2009) Historical Drama (Newmarket) Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martha West, Jim Carter, Zak Davies, Freya Parks, Robert Glenister, Bill Paterson, Harrison Sansostri, Ellie Haddington. Directed by Jon Amiel
There is little doubt that one of the most important – and controversial – scientific findings ever is Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution. It called into question some of the most deeply-held tenets of the Bible – the story of creation – and put in a rational, logical sense of reason into a subject that had always been to that time more faith-related. Putting pen to paper and telling the world of his ideas would take an enormous toll on Darwin the man.
Darwin (Bettany) is a family man, married to first cousin Emma Wedgwood (Connelly) with ten lovely children to keep him busy. One in particular – 10-year-old Anne (West) – is the apple of his eye, an outgoing, inquisitive soul who seems to be the closest to his own heart. However, she contracts a disease (Scarlet Fever or tuberculosis depending on which account you believe) and despite Darwin’s heroic efforts, taking her to the seaside for a “water cure,” little Anne passes away.
This devastates Charles and Emma both. They both cope with their grief in different ways. For Charles, his unanswered entreaties to the Almighty are proof positive that there is no God, for how could a being as advanced and compassionate as all that allow a child to die such a horrible death. For the deeply religious Emma, it only deepens her faith, knowing that her precious child is in the bosom of heaven with the angels.
This causes no little strain on their marriage as you might imagine, and the once-robust Charles is beset by illnesses of the digestion, hallucinations and fatigue. It has been 15 years since his voyage to the Galapagos Islands on the H.M.S. Beagle but he is still having difficulty writing the ground-breaking treatise that would become “On the Origin of Species.” Friends like Thomas Huxley (Jones) and Joseph Hooker (Cumberbatch) urge him to finish his work while the Rev. John Brodie-Innes (Northam), a close friend and confidante of his wife, is troubled by its implications. Huxley, almost gleefully, exclaims “Congratulations sir, you have killed God!” which further troubles Darwin.
He is fully aware of the ramifications of his treatise and even more aware of what it will mean to his wife and his marriage. Emma is terrified that by publishing his work, Charles will be damned to Hell and be separated from her and his children for all eternity.
Of course we know that he did eventually publish his work and that it did create a firestorm of controversy, so the actual publication of the work is not in doubt even if the filmmakers have a tendency to make it a point of suspense. However, it is not so much Darwin’s theories that are on display here (although there are some nice animation sequences used to explain the concepts) so much as Darwin the man.
As such, a heavy burden falls upon Bettany to carry the story and he is more than up to the task. Bettany has impressed me over the years with his ability to take on a wide range of roles, from villain to action hero to mild-mannered academic as he is here. He imbues Darwin with a decency and gentleness that humanizes the nearly-mythological figure who often is castigated for being godless. Darwin was far from godless; he was a believer for at least a portion of his life, but his belief system shifted elsewhere.
Connelly is given the difficult task of taking a rigid and inflexible person and making her likable, but she possesses the skills to accomplish just that. This isn’t a glamorous role and Connelly, who is one of the most beautiful women in the world might have easily passed on something like this, but to her credit took it on and conquered it. Emma can be dogmatic at times, but there is no doubt that she possesses a fierce devotion to husband and family. Despite her misgivings, she comes to understand that if her husband doesn’t publish his work, someone else will eventually reach the same conclusions as he (which Alfred Russel Wallace did – it is a letter from that scientist that eventually prodded Darwin into completing his work) and in the end she supports him.
Amiel directs this at a stately pace and if at times it gets a little bit overly-contemplative, that can be forgiven. This isn’t an action film to say the least, and there are some big concepts involved that deserve some conversation.
It is a testament to how Darwin’s work continues to be a source of controversy to the religious right that the film had difficulty in picking up distribution in America, at last falling to Newmarket which had a hit a few years back with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. This isn’t going to change your mind about religion or evolution but it might give you some insight as to the man who brought evolution into our collective midst, and the personal demons he had to face down in order to do it. This is the kind of solid film that won’t let you down if you choose to rent it for an evening’s viewing.
WHY RENT THIS: A sober and even-keeled examination of Darwin the man. Bettany and Connelly bring humanity to roles that are difficult at best.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly slow in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie deals with grief as well as religious faith, subject matter which might be difficult for younger folk to follow.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a biography of Darwin by noted author Randal Keynes, who is Darwin’s great-great-grandson.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a surprising amount. Several featurettes look into the life and times of Darwin, visit his home (which is a museum today) and participate in the debate that Darwin’s work engendered.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $896,298 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Assassination of a High School President