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“It’s only a theory,” says young Annie Darwin to her father Charles (Paul Bettany), echoing the persistent charge of rightist anti-evolution partisans in the United States. That, of course, is not what director Jon Amiel and his co-creators intended with this earnest, emotionally intense film about the personal and philosophical crisis of the revolutionary evolutionist. Creation clearly enough takes Darwin’s side in the strife between religious authority and the claims of science that his epochal book, On the Origin of the Species, reignited and refocused over a century and a half ago.

The filmmakers extend a few formally respectful gestures in the direction of religious faith. But despite the director’s protests of neutrality this is a film whose visual explorations of the natural world, sometimes microscopic and digitally originated or enhanced, are so compelling that even if Creation’s portrait of Darwin was less obviously sympathetic, religious tradition would come out a weak runner-up.

Darwin’s plight in Creation is a massive case of writer’s block. He can’t complete Origin after 20 years of research and writing, at first because, as he confides to the little girl, he’s daunted by the possibility that his work could destroy the moral order and help usher in a world of “brute survival.” But he soon has an even more deeply felt impediment. He suffers paralyzing torments of guilt and doubt after Annie’s death, and an estrangement from his loving but faithfully Anglican wife, Emmy (Jennifer Connelly).

Some of this treatment is affecting, but Creation tends to descend into 1950s-movies-style pop psychology pitch itself into and emotional crescendoes. The film has some of the most richly convincing recreations of 19th-century settings in recent memory. And it also has Bettany’s persuasively sensitive portrayal. The already converted will probably find some additional insights to Darwin’s work and life, and even those opposed to evolution’s claims may be at least a little less disposed to diabolize Darwin if they sit through it. The odds of this happening are, to be sure, near zero.

george sax

Watch the trailer for Creation

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