The work of Charles Darwin has been the subject of rancorous verbal abuse over the last decade, and even his name is synonymous in some circles with the imaginary “war on Christianity.” Most of those people are likely unaware that Darwin himself was married to a deeply religious woman, and he agonized for years about publishing his book on evolution that redefined the way we looked at the origin of our species for fear of undermining society. Jon Amiel’s Creation, which opens this weekend in selected cities, tells the real story of Darwin’s dilemma, and it is not the polemic some might expect.
“The Darwinists are hoping probably that we present him as a saint of post-20th-Century thought,” Amiel says of those expectations. “I think he was saint-like, in that I think he endured enormous suffering and a sort of virtual martyrdom to his health in pursuit of his beliefs and ideas, but I don’t think saints make interesting subjects for films. For those who want to deify him, I think they’ll be disappointed. For those who want to demonize him as the great horned demon of anti-creationist thought, I think they’re going to be disappointed, too, because he’s very much a human being and very much a lovable and sympathetic one.”
The film concentrates on the traumatic period of Darwin’s life leading up to the publication of On The Origin of Species, during which he was devastated by the loss of his daughter Annie and he struggled against the marital tension from his wife Emma, who was convinced his studies were leading him to soul-damning conclusions – a point of view which Darwin himself was legitimately concerned with as well. Charles and Emma are played by Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, whom you may know are married to each other in the real world. Usually, husbands and wives doing movies together are often perceived as “vanity projects,” but Amiel insists that’s not the case.
“Anybody who watches the movie will know there’s nothing to do with vanity in this project,” he says. “In fact, one of the treats that I think an audience will get is the rare privilege of seeing two people who are not only great actors but who are also real-life married and who are also very courageous actors who are willing to actually let you into the feeling of a very intense marriage in a state of great conflict.”
“I think there was an element of risk for me in casting Paul and Jennifer,” Amiel admits. “Had they ganged up on me, I could have been in trouble. Had these two not been hyper-professional and unbelievably well-prepared, it could have been difficult. It could have been The Paul and Jennifer Show in all the wrong ways. But you only need to look at their choices both in their careers in general and this film in particular to know that these are two consummately professional actors who have always been willing to go to some of the places that other actors just won’t go. They both were willing to very courageously open up parts not only of themselves but of their relationship together.”
“This is an intensely emotional film,” Amiel continues, “and lest anyone think that this is the emotionality of a would-be Hollywood three-hanky movie, they should know it’s actually Darwin’s emotionality that’s in this film. He was a man who would weep readily and often described doing so. He listened to Liszt and Chopin and read Wordsworth and the romantic poets and was a tremendously emotional person. Someone whose emotions were so constantly in upheaval that the act of thinking, the act of contemplating the uproar that his work was going to create, the thought of distressing his very religious wife by publishing ideas that were anathema to her – all these things made him physically ill. So this was an enormously emotional man, and I think it takes some people by surprise that this is a very emotional film.”
Of course, despite the compelling conflict that Amiel mined from Darwin’s story, the subject matter wasn’t exactly easy to dramatize. “His life has such an odd shape to it, and very unpromising dramatically,” Amiel notes. “He goes off on the Beagle in his very early 20s, comes back still a very young man and becomes quite celebrated for the voyage, and then promptly retires to a little country home outside London, and for the next 20 years leads this quiet, socially conservative life puttering around, breeds 10 children, writes a few learned monographs on earthworms and barnacles, before suddenly, 20 years after the Beagle, producing the book that changes the world. It’s an odd shape for a life. I think it wasn’t really until I learned about his relationship with his daughter and started reading Darwin’s letters to his wife, his journal entries, the things that his children wrote about him, that I suddenly started seeing the man behind the gigantic Mt. Rushmore-esque edifice that is Charles Darwin, and started to see a story that I felt enormously emotionally engaged with, and that was the part that took me by surprise, really.”
“However well-researched any biography is, there comes a point where hearsay won’t do it, when the diaries and journals of the characters won’t tell you anything,” he continues, in defense of changes made to historical fact to better serve the story. “At the point where the diarist closes the book and walks into their bedroom and closes the door, we’re left outside wondering. The job of a filmmaker and a storyteller is, I think, to pick up the baton where the biographer and the historian have to leave off. I was enormously grateful to Randal Keynes, who wrote the book on which we based the film, who is Darwin’s great-great-grandson and who is very much the guardian of the Darwin legacy, for basically enfranchising us to let our imaginations work our way into places where he as biographer and historian couldn’t go. Do we know for certain that Darwin talked to the spirit of his daughter? No, we do not. That was an imaginative device, but based on a number of known things about Darwin – that her death obsessed him, that she was his confidant and somebody not only to whom he explained his ideas but whose ideas he loved listening to. We took some historical liberties. Did Thomas Huxley look like Toby Jones? No. But did Toby Jones capture the essence of Huxley’s arrogance and pugnacity? Absolutely. There were various points where we compressed the narrative, elided characters or slightly folded chronology back upon itself in order to basically tell a true story. There are times when something that’s factually inaccurate can still be more authentic and more true than a literalistic chronological narrative. I think and believe, and I know that Randal Keynes holds that opinion, that the story is utterly true to Darwin, his ideas and his story.”
Aside from the difficulties in figuring out how to construct the story, Amiel also had problems in securing distribution for this film once it was done, which is surprising considering the star power and the topical subject matter. “I would like to say it was entirely because America was afraid of confronting the issues that the film raised,” Amiel muses. “I think the truth is a little more complicated, honestly. Yes, I think America currently is shying away from controversy. I think the American film-going public generally are shying away from all films that make them think. It’s tough out there. These are very hard times. It’s a recession culture. Just as Busby Berkeley flourished in the 30s during The Great Depression, I think so now are escapist films of most hues. I think people worried about money want to see films where lavish amounts of money have been spent, mostly on visual effects and explosions and action, but I think most people who are feeling frightened and worried about their lives want happy endings and romantic comedies and gross-out slacker comedies that can make them feel great about their own lives. I think also that, economically speaking, there has been a tectonic shift in independent film distribution in this country. The tragic and alarming fact is that this film almost didn’t get shown in this country, and I think many, many films every bit as good as this film made all over the world will never be seen on a big screen in this country under the current circumstances. The infrastructure is no longer there. They’re not getting financed, and even if they’re getting made, they’re not getting distribution here, because this business has contracted so dramatically.”
So what is it exactly that Amiel is hoping to achieve with Creation? “I’ve been around this game too long to believe that we will necessarily change minds with this movie. What I very much hope is that we’ll open them. I’ve been around several debates now between creationists and Darwinists and frankly, I’ve never heard a single mind changed. People tend to be very, very stuck in their views, and what you find listening to arguments between creationists and scientists is the debate between science and faith. You can’t counter something that’s essentially belief-based with something which is essentially fact-based. It doesn’t work. However, if the film does generate debate, does persuade some people to look more closely at Darwin’s ideas and examine their authenticity, does get people talking in a fresh way about who Darwin was as opposed to who their various ideologies want him to be, then we’ll have done a great job. If they simply go ‘oh my goodness, I never knew that’s who Charles Darwin was. I never knew that’s what he believed. I never knew how difficult his journey to writing that book was, and goodness, I’d like to know more.’ I think if I achieve those things, then I’ve more than fulfilled my wishes, desires, obligations.”