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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, February 27, 2010

 
Saturday Night At The Movies


Monkey gone to heaven


By Dennis Hartley











The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

-Douglas Adams









I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.

-Charles Darwin


I cannot persuade myself that it has been 50 years since anyone has bothered to make a film in which naturalist Charles Darwin’s seminal treatise on the theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species, plays any kind of significant role; but five long decades have indeed elapsed between Stanley Kramer’s intelligent and absorbing 1960 courtroom drama, Inherit the Wind (based on the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial”) and the new Darwin biopic, Creation. Perhaps this indicates that Hollywood itself has not evolved much, nu?

Perhaps I judge too harshly. After all, “Hollywood” has little to do with this particular film, as it was developed by BBC Films and the UK Film Council. The problem, it would seem, stems from U.S. distributors, none of whom initially appeared willing to touch the movie with a 10-foot pole following its debut at the Toronto International Festival last year. Maybe it had something to do with that peculiarly ‘murcan mindset that trucks with “reviews” like this one, posted on Movieguide.org., which states (among other things):

Manure, nicely wrapped with a bow, is still manure. A lie that there is no God and that somehow we have randomly shown up here on Earth as an accident is still a lie, even if it’s well written and acted.
Minds like steel traps. Okay, I do realize they are a staunchly Christian-oriented website, and are certainly entitled to their own opinions. At any rate…thank Ardi that someone eventually picked it up, because the film has now found limited release here in the states.














Although Jon Amiel’s film (written by John Colee and Randal Keynes) leans more toward drawing-room costume melodrama, focusing on Darwin’s family life-as opposed to, say, an adventure of discovery recounting the five-year mission of the HMS Beagle to boldly go where no God-fearing Christian had gone before in the interest of advancing earth and animal science, those who appreciate (to paraphrase my movie critic brethren over at Movieguide.org) thoughtful writing and fine acting…should not be disappointed.

Real-life married couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly play husband Charles and wife Emma Darwin, respectively. The story covers Darwin’s mid-life; beginning several years after his voyage on the Beagle and culminating on the eve of the publication of his most famous book. Darwin is not in a very healthy state when we are introduced to him; he suffers from a variety of stress-related maladies. Aside from the pressure he is under from peers like botanist/explorer Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) to organize 20 years worth of scientific notes and journals into his soon to be legendary tome (especially after Alfred Russell Wallace beats him to the punch with his brief 1858 essay on natural selection), he is literally sick with grief over the death of his beloved daughter Anna, who died at age 10 from illness. He is tortured with guilt over her death; he suspects Anna’s weak immune system to be the result of inbreeding (his wife was also his first cousin). Indeed, this was a tragic and ironic epiphany for the man whose name would become the most synonymous with the groundbreaking theories on evolution and natural selection.

Darwin also wrestles with a two-pronged crisis of faith. On the one hand, his inconsolable grief over the cosmic cruelty of a ten year old dying of complications from what should only have been a simple summer chill has distanced him even further from the idea of a benevolent creator (a confirmation in his heart of what the cool logic of his scientific mind has already been telling him). Then, there is the matter of the philosophical chasm between his science-based understanding of all creatures great and small, and the religious views held by his wife (whom he loves dearly). He continues his work, but hovers on the verge of a nervous breakdown, which distances him further from Emma and his surviving children (the Darwins eventually had ten, although only five are depicted in the film). He rejects counseling from long time family minister and friend Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam), alienating him as well. Darwin’s subsequent journey to both recovering his well-being and finding the balance between commitment to his scientific life’s work and loving devotion to his wife and children is very movingly told.

Interestingly, Bettany had a bit of a “warm-up” for this role back in 2003, when he played the ship surgeon and naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin, in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander - The Far Side of the World. He delivers a very strong performance here, and if you are familiar with some of the Daguerreotype portraits of Darwin taken in his younger years, even bears a striking physical resemblance. Connelly is sort of reprising the same role she had in A Beautiful Mind, but it is the type of character she inhabits very well; at once intelligent, strong-willed, compassionate, sensitive, and 100% believable. Toby Jones, who specializes in portraying historical figures as disparate as Truman Capote (Infamous), Swifty Lazar (Frost/Nixon) and Karl Rove (W) does a brief but memorable turn as botanist Thomas Huxley (who famously exalted “You’ve killed God, sir!” to Darwin in reaction to his breakthroughs in evolution theory). The revelation here is young Martha West in her film debut, stealing all her scenes as Anna (her dad is Dominic West, who is best known for his work on the HBO series, The Wire). There are some nice directorial flourishes throughout; especially when we are taken on a scurrying, “bug-cam” eye’s view of the wondrous microcosmic universe in the Darwin’s back yard.

Despite what the knee-jerk reactions from the wingnut blogosphere might infer about what I’m sure they interpret to be the godless blasphemy permeating every frame of the movie, I thought the filmmakers were even-handed on the Science vs. Dogma angle. This is ultimately a portrait of Charles Darwin the human being, not Charles Darwin the bible-burning God-killer (or however the “intelligent” designers prefer to view him). Genius that he was, he is shown to be just as flawed and full of contradictions as any of us. After all, we bipedal mammals with opposable thumbs are still a “work in progress”, aren’t we?

Previous posts with related themes:

Religulous

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