Thursday, January 21, 2010

Descent with Stinkification

The new Charles Darwin biopic "Creation" is a well-acted, beautifully shot film that stumbles only when dealing with Darwin's oldest daughter, Annie. Unfortunately for the audience, this is most of the movie.

I call it a biopic, though the movie only focuses on the period of Darwin's life when he was finishing up work on "The Origin of Species", with a few flashbacks thrown in where necessary. This isn't a bad way to frame a movie about Darwin. It's certainly a welcome change from the normal birth-to-death biopic structure that tends to make many of them connect-the-dots slogs. There's supposedly high drama here in Darwin's struggles both with grief over the death of his daughter (spoiler alert) and his wife's disapproval of his work's anti-religious implications. As Toby Jones' Thomas Huxley puts it in one of those made-for-the-trailer moments, "You've killed God."

But in narrowing the film's focus like this, we lose any emotional scope we might have gained from following Darwin's scientific journey. The film begins with Darwin's mind already made up. His struggle is in putting these ideas to paper. Which makes it even more jarring when the narrative suddenly springs to life as Darwin tells his children about his adventures on the HMS Beagle. Anyone with access to science textbooks or even a remote curiosity about how the world works already knows why evolution is true, but "Creation" would have benefited from showing Darwin's process of discovery. It's not like he was cooped up in a lab his whole life. He visited a fantastic island complex full of weird, wonderful creatures. This is inherently more cinematic than simply watching him mope about his study for two hours.

Which brings me to this film's fatal flaw. Darwin's daughter Annie died when she was only ten years old. Darwin was devastated not only because he'd lost a child, but because he suspected his close relation to his wife (she was his first cousin) might have guaranteed Annie's genetic weakness. But although Paul Bettany does a fine job playing Darwin's despair, the audience can't feel that despair with him. As portrayed in the film, Annie isn't just a bright ray of scientifically curious sunshine in Darwin's life; she's downright creepy in her almost psychopathic optimism. I won't mention the name of the young actress who plays Annie for fear she might have set up a Google Alert. Maybe it's director Jon Amiel's fault that she maintains a weirdly inhuman, tooth-busting grin in almost every moment she's on screen. I sure hope so.

Annie's eerily intense good spirits are no more off-putting than in a scene where Darwin takes his children on a walk through the woods. They come upon a fox stalking an unaware rabbit. The fox leaps from its hiding spot and bites down on the rabbit's neck. One of Darwin's younger children cries out in horror, begging her father to interfere. But Annie leans down to her sister, Tom Cruise grin firmly in place, and cheerfully explains the necessary murder that creates balance in nature. It's a cold, weird moment made even weirder by a reaction shot of Darwin's grinning approval.

The impact of Annie's eventual death is also diluted by the far more effectively emotional relationship between Darwin and an orangutan he studies at the London Zoo. By way of a story Darwin tells to Annie, we see him bond with this young ape in such a way that he sees the humanity in the animal. Ultimately, this also helps him see the animal in humans. Maybe baby apes are just inherently cuter than baby children, but these brief, lyrical scenes are far more jolting than those of Annie slowly dying in the bed of a hydrotherapist's clinic. When the orangutan rests its head on its keeper's chest and falls into the permanent sleep of death, I choked up. When Annie finally resigned herself to mortality, I was just glad to be rid of her freakish, dead-eyed smile.

Worse, death doesn't even kill her. An endless succession of scenes have Annie pop up as a ghostly vision in Darwin's head. At first I thought this was just a clumsy, annoying dramatic conceit. Manifestations of the dead have been used successfully to suss out a character's psychological machinations. The HBO series "Six Feet Under" comes to mind. "Hamlet" seems to work. But Darwin's visions of Annie don't strike the audience as a man grappling with guilt and grief so much as a man going slowly insane. Darwin's wife (Jennifer Connelly) wanders into the room as her husband yells at the ghost of their dead daughter. This isn't mourning; it's schizophrenia. It's also simplistic and easy. Darwin doesn't just have his daughter on his mind. She's literally standing right in front of him, smiling like an idiot and telling him outright how he feels.

Speaking of Connelly's wandering, that's pretty much all she does. She floats from scene to scene looking dour, which is particularly disconcerting considering this is what she's been doing as an actress for most of the last decade. She may be doing the best she can with this script, but it's such a waste.

Aside from the unfortunate girl who plays Annie, all of the performances range from good to great. Bettany is solid despite having to wear a less than convincing bald cap. And every actor is shot beautifully. Cinematographer Jess Hall's work here borders on sublime at times, especially when he's shooting nature. One time-lapsed sequence of a baby bird falling out of its nest to eventually decay to a skeleton on the forest floor has more impact than any scene of dialogue in the entire film.

The blame ultimately must lie with director Jon Amiel, a respected British filmmaker with roots in Shakespearean theater. His BBC adaptation of "The Singing Detective" was fantastic television. But that was in 1986. Since then, he's been behind the camera on a string of stinkers. "Sommersby", "Copycat", "Entrapment", and "The Core" all bear his name. Yes, "The Core". "Armageddon" in reverse. So there you go. Perhaps John Collee's script just wasn't there, but Amiel should have wrestled a better performance for Annie, the movie's lynchpin. And a half dozen scenes of Darwin crying into his manuscript should have been left on the cutting room floor.

After showing at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, "Creation" had a difficult time securing American distribution. It was sold in many other territories, but producer Jeremy Thomas famously claimed the Christian right scared U.S. buyers from picking up the movie, as it paints Charles Darwin as something less than a God-killing devil. "People have been saying this is the best film they've seen all year," an apoplectic Thomas told the "Telegraph". That may be true, but I can't imagine who those people would be. Though I can't say I blame Thomas for stirring up a little controversy. "Creation" needs all the help it can get.