Archive for April, 2010

Mis-Creation—A Movie Review

I have not posted to DarwinWatch in well over a year, leaving you and me both wondering if I had abandoned the project.  It is only postponed while I have had to devote myself to my non-profit organization’s struggle to weather the global financial and economic meltdown of the past 18 months.  The effort seems to be succeeding, but it is too soon to tell for sure, and it has left me with more work responsibilities than I can handle.  Still, I’ve labored fitfully with a couple of very long posts that should appear on this site in the next month or two.

Annie’s Box as a Movie

What has drawn me prematurely back to posting is that, just this past week on an international flight, I watched a movie called Creation.  One of the Darwin websites informed me in 2008 that this movie was in production, based (very loosely, it turns out) on the book Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes, one of the descendants of Charles and Emma Darwin.  I liked the book very much and was looking forward to the movie, wondering how it would be done. 

Director Jon Amiel based this movie on the anguish of Charles and Emma Darwin over the inexplicable death of their ten-year-old daughter, Annie, in April 1851.  Charles is played by Paul Bettany, who played well the Darwin-like ship’s doctor in Master and Commander—The Far Side of the World (2003).  In more recent roles, however, Bettany seems to be type-cast as a man tortured by demons, as in The Da Vinci Code and now Creation.  I found Bettany’s portrayal of Charles almost a character assassination.  And Emma is portrayed by Bettany’s real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly, as a pinched, worried woman, darkly resentful of her husband’s strange work, strange colleagues and strange illness.  Even their children are made to seem fearful of Charles, with the exception of Annie, who seems too modern in her chummy patronization of her father’s weakness.  Charles’s closest friend, Joseph Hooker, came across as manipulative and dismissive of Charles’s reservations about publishing his theory of evolution.  The homunculus who played Thomas Huxley was appalling in his uncaring aggressiveness as a culture warrior hell-bent to use Charles as a weapon against religion, whatever the cost to Charles himself.

Historical Accuracy

I can hardly blame the actors for their portrayals of these historical characters.  No doubt they were doing the director’s bidding.  And what, after all, is so very wrong about the movie?  Is it historically inaccurate?  No, the facts of the movie follow the real history with only a few exceptions.

Yes, Charles suffered, at times greatly, from an undiagnosed illness that affected his stomach and head, causing vomiting, headaches, sleeplessness, and anxiety attacks.  Yes, Charles was often shy of company, especially as the excitement of social interaction sometimes triggered bouts of his illness, but the Darwins were famously welcoming and cheerful hosts.  Yes, Emma suspected that the illness was psychosomatic, generated by the stress of intense, self-driven, mental work.  Yes, Charles was convinced that “hydro-therapy” helped his condition (though the break from work to go to Malvern for the “water cure” may have been the real source of relief).  He did insist on the dubious benefits of the strange coldwater douche baths.  

Yes, Charles was reluctant to publish his “species theory” for fear of public reaction and professional opprobrium, especially after the harsh reception of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844, about the same time he wrote the first version of his own theory of evolution.  Yes, Emma had expressed her concern in a letter or two to Charles (apparently never speaking to him directly on the matter) that the impact of his work on public attitudes toward Christianity might jeopardize his soul and divide him from her forever in the Hereafter.  Yes, Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley (and Charles Lyell, not mentioned in the movie) urged Charles to publish his theory, perhaps setting themselves at odds with Emma’s preference, but there is no evidence that Emma actively argued against publication. 

Yes, Annie became gravely ill and would not respond to normal medical treatment, so in desperation, Charles took her to Malvern for the “water cure” that had seemed to help his mysterious ailment.  Yes, Emma did not accompany them to Malvern, probably because she was in the later stages of pregnancy, and no doubt she felt guilty that she was not by her daughter’s side when Annie died at Malvern.  Yes, Charles and Emma were devastated by Annie’s death; Emma would not speak of her afterward, and Charles took several years to fully recover from his grief. 

Yes, Charles did not get along with the Rev. Innes of the local parish, but it is doubtful they were ever close friends, and Emma was a Unitarian Nonconformist who had equally deep differences with the Reverend’s Anglican orthodoxy.  Yes, Charles was deeply troubled by the cruelty of the natural world and the difficulty of squaring this fact with the goodness of God the Creator.  Yes, Annie’s death only further confirmed the inexplicable cruelty, driving Charles further from traditional Christian explanation, perhaps lessening his scruples about publicly differing with the Church of England.

Sacrifice the Man for the Cause! 

The movie, however, presents all these facts under a brooding cloud of interpersonal tension between Charles and Emma as he struggles with inner demons driving him nearly to madness.  Attempting to create a family psychodrama that reflects the larger culture war of post-modern Western civilization, Jon Amiel has taken extreme liberties with the true character of Charles and his marriage and his family to create a cariacature with features distorted by willfully grotesque exaggeration.  All reports (that I’ve read so far) are that Charles had a remarkably sunny disposition despite his strange illness, especially toward his wife, his children, his servants and his friends.  This was a fundamentally happy man in a remarkably good marriage with a bunch of well-adjusted kids living in a pleasant, high-functioning household and well-loved in their village and their social circle.  The contrast between the life of the Darwin family and the outside swirl of ugly controversy created by Charles’s work could not have been more striking. 

But happiness doesn’t make for critically acclaimed movies these days, and it certainly doesn’t suit the socio-political agenda of the movie’s makers in this case.  They needed Charles Darwin to be a tortured soul caught between the forces of science and religion at war.  What a travesty!

There ought to be a law against character assassination, even of historical personalities.

Copyright 2010 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.DarwinWatch.wordpress.com)

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This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!