When the Charles Darwin biopic, Creation, failed to find Stateside distribution after opening last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, a producer chalked it up to its controversial subject matter. Now that the film has in fact found its way to a limited release here, the content speaks for itself as a muddled tale of both a grief-stricken parent and an anguished genius. Generally, it is more concerned with Darwin dwelling on the past instead of dealing with the future, and only controversial in the sense that it nearly marginalizes the 1859 publication of his On the Origin of Species with so much surrounding melodrama.
As indicated by the varying hairline of star Paul Bettany, Creation jumps back and forth between flashbacks and the present day as Darwin contends with a fading faith in God and a growing pressure to see his work on evolution published, despite the dismay of the church and his wife (played by Bettany's real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly).
Director Jon Amiel (The Core, Entrapment) commendably gets his most laughably obvious moment out of the way early on, when Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) pats the man on the back for "killing God," and proceeds to shift between the man's crisis of faith and the crisis within his family. More often than not, Darwin is specifically earning that man's support and his wife's dismay, in addition to that of the local pastor (Jeremy Northam), and supporters like Huxley come to him, which consequently narrows down a nationwide, if not worldwide, debate to a squabble between roughly five characters.
Our sixth character is that of Annie (Martha West), Darwin's late daughter who haunts his every waking moment as a natural inquisitor and surrogate conscience. She's just as impossibly perfect as Darwin might've imagined her to be, far more fascinated in his work than any of his other children and doomed by a disease that also afflicts him. Charles wonders if having wed his first cousin was what led to Annie's death; Emma meanwhile worries about her husband's hallucinations much in the same way that Connelly did in A Beautiful Mind. (Come to think of it, Bettany's about as fascinated by nature here as he was in Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. And wouldn't you know it, that film and this one have screenwriter John Collee in common. But I digress.)
On the one hand, it's a domestic drama like many others, transforming the Darwins into a generically conflicted couple from any era, languishing in their unhappy marriage and eager to slip in dead-kid dream sequences that feel both distinctly modern and thoroughly unnecessary. On the other hand, it's a livelier period piece than most when given the chance, made all the more immediate by its moral dilemmas and exquisite production design. Bettany capably runs the range of anguish between the two tales, but it's a narrow range at that; too rarely do we see him liven up as when he spends some time observing an orangutan and finds himself thrilled by scientific pursuit, if only to be troubled by its eventual implications.
Creation ultimately suggests that the evolution of the individual is just as important as the evolution of its species, as they adapt, cope and grow with changing times and surroundings. It's a valid argument, but it makes it all the more a shame that Amiel's biopic doesn't do more to be more than so many of its kind.