Film Review | Sunday, 25 October 2009

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An evolution in grief

Period dramas make for the UK’s only consistent cinematic produce. They’re as reliable and predictable as the Hollywood churn of rom-coms, action flicks and comic book adaptations, and just about as uniform in quality as these Stateside equivalents. They’re meant to strike a different note, of course; they cater to an audience that’s after a more genteel (if slightly pretentious) couple of hours at the movies, which nonetheless require just as little emotional investment and cranial effort.
What a balm to a giant-robot, mutant superhero dominated summer Stephen Frears’ ‘Cheri’ was, despite its shortcomings. The same goes for ‘The Young Victoria’, a Disneyfied account of the austere monarch’s early reign, to which I am nonetheless grateful, since it managed to save me from a viewing and reviewing of ‘Angels and Demons’.
One thing the two films brought home was just how incestuous the Brit film industry is. Rupert Friend played the titular role in ‘Cheri’, while also taking on Prince Albert in the Victoria biopic. Miranda Richardson (of Blackadder fame) and Mark Strong – coming in from Guy Ritchie films, of all places – also occupied roles on the pre-Victorian court, playing mother and Comptroller to Emily Blunt’s Queen. The role of political advisor and statesman William Lamb went to Paul Bettany, who also happens to be the star of Jon Amiel’s ‘Creation’, which purports to tell the true story of Charles Darwin, and is based on Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution, written by Darwin’s great-great grandson Randal Keynes.
But even though it outwardly displays all the trappings of a neutered period piece, studded with the usual cast of cravatted RP-enunciating thespians, it is a film that is far from tokenistic, and has a visceral focus rarely seen in any period piece.
The crux of the story is very simple: it’s about the creation of what has been called ‘the greatest single idea in the history of science’: Darwin’s theory of evolution – specifically, that all species of life have evolved from common ancestors – and the tortured road to its completion. The film flashes back and forth between pivotal points in Darwin’s life that influenced – directly or indirectly – the writing of The Origin of Species, such as the tragic death of his daughter Annie (Martha West), which leads to a rift between the naturalist and his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly, who is Bettany’s real-life spouse). As the implications of the theory of evolution carry troublesome implications for the role of God in the act of creation, Charles’ research threatens to take away the only comfort the couple have in dealing with their grief.
Offhand, nobody would think that the completion of a book would make for ideal dramatic material. But Amiel’s film is a loaded story. Not only does it invite us for a private view to a cataclysmic moment in the history of science, it is also an acute portrayal of grief and faith set against the backdrop of the tumultuous fin-de-siecle.
The laughable contemporary reaction against Darwin, led by Creationist loonies in the US, only drives home how truly complicated the Victorian era was, and how little credit we tend to give to its true revolutionaries. While the Creationist tide is truly worrying, it stems from a freakish hysteria. In Darwin’s time, the lines were not so clear-cut (indeed, there were no lines to speak of), and Bettany’s meticulous and heartfelt portrayal, in all of its raw conflict, is a much-needed overhaul of the popular image of Darwin, that of a cold, surgical vivisectionist of nature.
His warmth is most clearly brought out in his relationship with Annie, and West boasts a precocity that befits her character. The build up to Annie’s death risks morbid sentimentality but luckily, Amiel has an assertive hold over the mise-en-scene, embellishing the film with haunting visual cues that illustrate the immediacy of Darwin’s theory, such as the harrowing focus on a young hatchling that falls out of its nest.
As it cries out to its unresponsive parent, we are made to witness its gradual decomposition at the cruel hands of nature.

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