Creation tells the story of Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) at home with his family in Down House during the last decade he researched and wrote, but hesitated to publish, The Origin of Species (1859).  The film represents the sorrow of those intellectually ripe years when he worked out his insights into the process of natural selection as his "radiant," beloved daughter Annie-Anne Elizabeth-(Martha West) became fatally ill.  These events were compounded by Darwin's own mysterious chronic illness, which he attempted to relieve through laudanum and trips to Great Malvern for Gulley's cold water cures.

In 1851 he took a very sick ten-year-old Annie with him to the waters and, inconsolable, left her to be buried in the local churchyard.  Through his physical and emotional suffering, he continued to dissect barnacles, breed and skeletonize pigeons, engage the village parson and local farmers alike, consult with supporters Thomas Hooker and Thomas Huxley, exchange hundreds of letters, and remain an affectionate father and husband. 

The loss of "the joy of the Household" strengthened his wife Emma's (Jennifer Connelly) religious beliefs, as it exhausted whatever might have existed of his. The story, artfully told in beautifully sequenced flashbacks, keeps the tensions and accommodations between Charles and Emma on the subject of religious faith in balance, emphasizing their loving partnership as spouses and parents.  Emma supported his work, read his manuscript, and understood its importance, even as she disagreed with its implications for her spiritual life.  Darwin contributed to the local parish church Emma attended.    

Some of the most compelling moments in the film occur during Darwin's joyous outings with his children when they suddenly witness the demise of woodland creatures.  In these scenes, the ineluctable struggles between life and death that Darwin's theory of natural selection eloquently describes resonate with his personal experience.  We see a fledgling fall from its nest near a sheep's skull and decay before our eyes.  We hear Annie explain to her horrified siblings that if the fox they encounter didn't kill the screeching rabbit in its jaws, its pups would die.

These scenes, along with the earlier view of the captive Fuegian child Boat Memory dying of small pox in an English hospital, suggest the fragility of the young that Annie's death makes devastatingly personal for Darwin.  The film simultaneously acknowledges Darwin's empirically derived logic of such deaths in his scientific treatise and his suffering from the brutal manifestations of that logic in the life of his family.  While scientific explanation fails to console him for the loss of Annie, the film suggests human affection as the best, though still potentially painful response.     


Creation is based on a book by Darwin's great-great-grandson Randal Hume Keynes, Annie's Box: Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution (Fourth Estate 2001), which takes its inspiration from the discovery of a wooden writing box in which Annie stored childhood curiosities and loved objects.  Keynes's book (and the film) make generous use of a trove of family diaries and letters to recreate Darwin's relationships with Annie and Emma and his reluctance to publish an idea that embedded humans in the same biological operations as all the inhabitants of the natural world. 

Because this beautifully crafted film offers two views of death-one objectively scientific, the other painfully subjective-it can easily participate in discussions of death and dying.  The film also offers a window onto Victorian medicine and science, illness and creativity, religion and science, memory, grief, hallucinations, guilt, and family relationships.  Creation moves at an unhurried pace that mimics Darwin's own patient, attentive process of working.  Visually arresting, the film recreates as well Darwin's study, cluttered with specimens, instruments, books, and papers.  It sets outdoor scenes in the sand walk surrounding Down House, in lush English country sides and rocky shores, and in a Thai jungle, where the famous orangutan Jenny was captured for study and display.

Paul Bettany subtly performs Darwin's core humility, affection for his family, confusing physical and emotional discomforts, intense curiosity, and utter grief.  Martha West captivates as she matches Darwin's description of Annie's "loving disposition" and "her dear bright face."  Creation blends documentary sources with imaginative renderings of the private moments of a man whose work and life became irrevocably public.



Note:  All the quotations are from Charles Darwin's memorial of Anne Elizabeth Darwin, written one week after her death.  The original manuscript is in the Darwin Archive of Cambridge University Library (DA 210. 13).  An edited transcription appears online as part of the Darwin Correspondence Project, which is my source.         




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