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A Beautiful Mind Boggles

MOVIE REVIEW
Creation (2009)

Paul Bettany in Jon Amiel's CREATION - photo courtesy of Liam Daniel
Liam Daniel/Newmarket Films

“Creation” achieves the impressive feat of reducing Charles Darwin and his work to fodder for stiff-lipped, cumbersome dramatics. It’s amazing that a story of the man behind the most revolutionary idea in human history could feel so flat and uninspired. But director Jon Amiel achieves the seemingly impossible by hewing to a stock chamber-piece approach that contradicts the wholly modern, innovative way his subject lived his life.

Paul Bettany plays the naturalist, in a performance rife with tangible, subdued vulnerability. John Collee’s screenplay, adapted from the book “Annie’s Box” by Darwin’s great-great-grandson Randal Keynes, zeroes in on a tumultuous period in his ancestor’s life. Annie (Martha West), their beloved eldest daughter, has recently died. The aftereffects are brutal: Charles is driven apart from his deeply religious wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), their relationship hampered by the pain of Annie’s death and the magnitude of Charles’s heretical evolutionary notions.

The film humanizes the icon, transforming him from the bearded figure these days restricted to being tossed around as a buzzword in divisive political debates to someone far more relatable. With a detached, pained expression implanted on his face, Mr. Bettany offers a Darwin who’s never quite completely there, a man swallowed by his internal torment. The actor puts his ghostly appearance to effective use, dramatizing writer’s block and its myriad troubling causes with an immediacy lost on the rest of the picture.

The rest of the movie is too stately and sad, bathed in stale, tasteful drama. There’s an overarching emptiness at its core that sells the subject short. Mr. Amiel turns a fascinating, relevant figure into the stock, depressed head of a family disintegrating in conventional ways. The spare cinematography, unfolding in drawing rooms, parlors and on the grounds of the Darwin estate, takes a stock tableaux approach, while the depictions of the protagonist’s theories in action (a bird dies, decays and is consumed by maggots) suffer from their distracting, cheap aesthetics.

“Creation” needs livening up, some hint of the excitement and wonder that surely accompanied much of Darwin’s life. At minimum, a picture about a man who changed the world should feel like its own fresh entity, demonstrating some sort of innovative sensibility. Too often, Mr. Amiel’s work feels like a stock, pandering subpar BBC biography with most of the interesting parts siphoned out.

CREATION

Opens on Jan. 22 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Jon Amiel; written by John Collee, based on a screen story by Mr. Amiel and Mr. Collee, based on the book “Annie’s Box” by Randal Keynes; director of photography, Jess Hall; edited by Melanie Oliver; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Laurence Dorman; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Newmarket Films. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Paul Bettany (Charles Darwin), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Darwin), Jeremy Northam (Reverend Innes), Toby Jones (Thomas Huxley), Benedict Cumberbatch (Joseph Hooker), Jim Carter (Parslow), Bill Paterson (Dr. Gully) and Martha West (Annie Darwin).

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