Jon Amiel's Creation is bound to spark controversy because it depicts Charles Darwin struggling with his epochal 1859 work, On the Origin of Species, though it's much more than a red flag to religious fundamentalists. The opening-night film at the Toronto International Film Festival is an intelligent, touching depiction of a brilliant man who's sure of his scientific skills but tormented not only by remorse over the loss of a beloved child but also by the realization that he has lost his faith.
It is shot beautifully and boasts performances by Paul Bettany as Darwin and his real-life wife, Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly, as Darwin's wife, Emma, that should attract awards attention. Thoughtful and memorable, it will do well with grown-up audiences across the board.
Working from the book Annie's Box, by Darwin's great-great-grandson Randal Keynes, screenwriter John Collee shows the scientist as a fully engaged husband and father who buckles under the weight of his daughter Annie's death, for which he blames himself.
Collee and director Amiel move seamlessly back and forth from the lovely times when Annie (Martha West) was the apple of her father's eye to the present as he is wracked with writer's block and the fear that by writing his book, he will lose the love of his deeply religious wife.
Thanks to the writing, pacing and Bettany's nuanced performance, it is one of the best delineations of intellectual and emotional struggle seen on film in many a year. The actor's scenes with Annie and Emma have an extraordinary tenderness that grips the heart just as Darwin's scientific dilemma engages the brain. West is unaffected and winning as the girl, and Connelly, with a perfect English accent, shows the wife's anguish as well as her undying loyalty.
Amiel's greatest achievement is that Creation is a deeply human film with moments of genuine lightness and high spirits to go with all the deep thinking.
Louise Stjernsward's costumes and Laurence Dorman's production design, plus the English countryside, make it all very handsome, and cinematographer Jess Hall and editor Melanie Oliver deserve top marks. Christopher Young's score is apt and extremely pleasing.
It would be a great shame if those with religious convictions spurned the film out of hand, as they will find it even-handed and wise.