Creation

We saw Creation this afternoon at FACT: a screening that began memorably when they began to show an entirely different film by accident, and continued with some mad American creationist muttering and heckling through the film.

The film – which is directed by Jon Amiel (who has done a lot of  work with the BBC, including The Singing Detective) and stars Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly – is based on a book, Annie’s Box, written by the great great grandson of Darwin, Randal Keynes. Keynes found a box at Down House in Kent that contained mementoes of Darwin’s daughter Annie, who died when only 10 years old, probably of tuberculosis. This determined Keynes to draw a portrait of Darwin as not only an intellectual and a scientist, but also a doting and then grieving father, and a man deeply in love with his wife, Emma. And this is the focus of the film.

The film opens promisingly, with Darwin telling Annie and her siblings the story of a highly significant episode from the Beagle voyage: that of the three native Fuegians who the Beagle’s captain had previously kidnapped and taken to England to ‘civilise’. Part of the ship’s mission was to take these Fuegians home, and for them then to act as missionaries. Darwin met his first native Fuegians in Tierra del Fuego and was greatly intrigued by their culture, which was completely different from western European culture. But when he observed these ‘civilized natives’ it was obvious that differences in culture could easily be overcome – so what was the real difference? Encounters with native peoples across South America, Polynesia and Australia confirmed to Darwin that humans were one species.

But for me this also highlights a weakness of the film;  it fails to develop Darwin’s intellectual context, as the grandson of Erasmus Darwin on his father’s side (who had written a long poem in the 1790s, called Zoonomia, in which he argued that life had changed over great stretches of time, with new creatures emerging from old ones), and of Josiah Wedgwood on his mother’s side, born into a family of free thinkers and liberals, opposed to slavery and committed to phiosophical and scientific enquiry. Nor do we get a sense of how Darwin, though he did choose to isolate himself at Down House, was in daily correspondence with fellow-scientists and intellectuals in London and around the world. Instead what we get is a somewhat overdrawn picture of a physically weak man on the edge of nervous breakdown, without a balancing sense of his daily routine of experiments and writing.

The science tends to take a backseat to issues of domestic strife and personal suffering. Presumably the intention is to make the story as accessible as possible to a modern audience but you can’t help feeling that something has been lost. (Daily Express)

Although the film leans towards the  Hollywood biopic style, it does have strengths and powerful, moving moments. It’s a narrative that isn’t linear, but one that is organized emotionally, cutting between the episodes in Darwin’s life that were of particular emotional significance to him.

One of these episodes is unfolded, again, through Darwin drawing on his experiences to tell stories to his children. It concerns Jenny the orangutan, put in a dress and taught to eat with a spoon, encountered by Darwin at London Zoo. The story reveals a basic truth about the father and the child, the human and the orangutan, and, of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution. After his return to England after the Beagle voyage, Darwin lived in London for a while and often visited London Zoo to discuss the specimens he collected with experts. In March 1838 Darwin, who had recently begun research on the transmutation of species was fascinated, saw Jenny and wrote in one of his notebooks:

‘Let man visit Ouranoutang in domestication, hear its expressive whine, see its intelligence when spoken to; as if it understands every word said – see its affection – to those it knew – see its passion & rage, sulkiness, & very actions of despair; … and then let him boast of his proud pre-eminence … Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.’

In the film we see Darwin observing the emotional expressions of his infant daughter, Annie, in the same scientific manner as he had Jenny the orangutan. These observations led eventually led to the book Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals published in 1872. In the book Darwin argued that emotions in humans such as love, joy, anger, guilt and horror share the same evolutionary origins as those of other animals. The prevailing Christian view at the time was that emotions were a special gift to humans from God.

The final scene in this story, narrated by Darwin at Annie’s insistence, is deeply moving; the orangutan playing Jenny deserves an Oscar.

Creation trailer

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