Creation marks Paul Bettany's second go-round as a 19th-century naturalist in a movie from screenwriter John Collee. In Master and Commander, Bettany was the proto-Darwin whose findings about how animals use camouflage to elude predators had immediate application during the Napoleonic Wars. In Creation, he is Darwin himself, decades pregnant with the research for his seminal On the Origin of Species, but too hopeless to deliver the manuscript.
Does Darwin have prepartum depression because he fears the laws of natural selection he has so carefully documented will challenge the laws of God? So it would seem, especially when his colleague T.H. Huxley (Toby Jones) calls on the naturalist and goads him to publish: "You've killed God, sir! And it's about time!"
Yet while Creation announces itself as a chapter in the ongoing epic of science versus religion, Jon Amiel's moody, and strangely moving, vignette of the naturalist is something else entirely. It is more about Darwin, father and husband, than Darwin the scientist.
Its first half is a portrait of the naturalist and his beloved daughter, Annie (enchanting Martha West), whose death plunges him into despair. Its second half is about how grief creates a marital stalemate. Losing Annie causes Darwin to lose his faith and Mrs. Darwin to find solace in hers. The gulf between the spouses is turbulent and seemingly unbridgeable, and both Bettany and Jennifer Connelly (the actor's real-life spouse as Emma Darwin) play it to the hilt.
According to Collee's script, the marriage of Darwin and Emma must, ahem, evolve before the prophet of evolution can allow himself to publish his revolutionary tome.
The screenplay is based on the book Annie's Box, by Darwin's great-great-grandson Randal Keynes and directed by Amiel (of the BBC-TV serial The Singing Detective) with the foreboding of a Victorian gothic.
On a family picnic while his clan chirps merrily, Darwin hears the death march that is the survival of the fittest, and also sees it through the magic of time-lapse vision, as though with the eyes of David Lynch.
A thrush swoops from a tree to fetch a maggot for its fledgling; fledgling tumbles from nest, its carcass later to serve as banquet for the maggots' kin. Darwin's mental movie of the circle of life foreshadows Annie's death - and confirms his belief in the bleak force of natural selection.
(As it happens, Darwin and Emma are first cousins, and the naturalist feels guilty that this inbreeding may have compromised the health of his beloved daughter.)
While the film's flashbacks and -forwards are disorienting, the performances give the film propulsion and poignancy. In the end, when you reflect on Darwin's observation that "it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. . . . It is the one that is most adaptable to change," you think he must have been speaking of marriage.