Friday, September 11, 2009

TIFF 2009: Creation

Paul Bettany as Darwin and friend

Creation (U.K., 2009) directed by Jon Amiel, 103 minutes at the Ryerson Theatre

My first TIFF film this year!

R and I have been going to the festival since we graduated. Now I go mostly on my own which I enjoy. It used to be that you could get a really inexpensive pass, jump on the streetcar and see dozens of films leaving only minutes between films and still get in. Okay, things have changed.

Some might say it is a victim of its own huge success. I say put a sock in it! This festival is considered one of the best, if not the best in the world. Boo hoo, the lines are too long! Boo hoo, the people are pretentious! Boo hoo, it's too expensive (it can be but, hey, I got a pass which allows me to see films for ten bucks each). Boo hoo, that crowd to see Brad Pitt interferes with me getting to my dentist in Yorkville on time! This festival changed Toronto. This (and massive immigration) turned the city into an exciting, diverse and intriguing place to be culturally in the 1970s and today. So get over yourselves with all that hating kids ...

Enough nostalgia ... If you were expecting Creation to be a dry film explaining the scientific origins of evolution, this is not the film for you. This is a tender, passionate recreation of the emotional trials that Charles Darwin suffered on the cusp of developing his theories as detailed in his revolutionary book On the Origin of Species in 1859, which at times threatened to unhinge him and blow apart his family.

The film is based on the biography Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution written by Randal Keynes, the great great grandson of Charles Darwin.

Effectively deconstructing the image of a dry, boring, dispassionate scientist, the filmmaker Jon Amiel has gone to great lengths to convey something else. This film depicts an emotionally and physically fragile Charles Darwin and how he developed his theory of evolution and what that meant to him as a man married to a devout Christian wife.

We can't underestimate the tremendous impact that the theory made on a largely Christian society which believed biblical lore literally including how man was created. If man and other living beings evolved over the course of millions of years (as Darwin's theories prove) how is one to interpret the stories of how God created man and the world during the course of one week and many other things as detailed in the bible.

The British actor Paul Bettany
(as striking as he is) bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Darwin, which the director pointed out before the film, and, if portrayed accurately, was a fragile, passionate, emotional man who loved his family and wife greatly and feared for the repercussions on their lives if his scientific theories proved true.

At one point, Emma Darwin (Jennifer Connelly, Bettany's real life wife and mother of his children) accuses him of being at "war with God" and that he knows it is a war that he "cannot win". Frankly, Darwin seems terrified of the possibility. At one point he takes to his bed, shaken and weary and unable to proceed. He is literally dragged from his bed by a colleague who understands the historic importance of Darwin's discoveries and urges him on. Other scientists are feverishly working towards the same conclusions and they want Darwin who has been at work on them for years, if not decades, to come forth.

Emma is initially resistant to his discoveries and feels that, even if true, they must toe the line with their more religious friends. When their eldest child Annie (the enchanting Martha West) is punished by the local clergyman (Jeremy Northam) for claiming that dinosaurs existed Emma is squarely on the side of the minister, not because she doesn't believe they existed but because she doesn't think that Annie should question the authority of the church on any issue. She expects the same from Charles.

There is a tense moment when Charles instructs her to destroy the manuscript if she does not believe his theories to be true and we suspect, briefly, that she has done so.

The film implies that it is daughter Annie's honest curiosity and pluck that pushes Darwin to proceed. When he appears fearful and unable to continue she merely says to him, "Why are you so afraid? It's only a theory."

Annie is rambunctious, intellectually open, charming and loving. The father/daughter relationship is particularly lovingly rendered as Charles and Emma struggle over caring for Annie during her illness which is a near catastrophic event for the parents.

It is curious to imagine this famous scientist as a fun loving story teller who adored his children, went on nature expeditions, passionately loved his wife - what a pleasant, intriguing surprise!

Minor Tiff of the day: "A miffed John Riley, the president of television networks for Astral Media — which sponsors TIFF’s opening night gala party — [held] up a picture of Connelly in front of party guests and ripped it in two, saying: “This is my former favourite actress.” All this because Connelly left the party early citing the first anniversary of her father's death as the reason. That's right John, show the world how gracious we Canadians can be.

Post-script: Astonishly, someone is quoting from ALC here. Not bad for a little girl from Hamilton!

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