For my first film of the year, I turn to one I have been meaning to watch since it came out more than a decade ago – the story of how Charles Darwin came to write his world-changing On the Origin of Species, as told through the medium of Paul Bettany, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Northam and a host of other British screen luminaries. (Plus, Jennifer Connolly.) It is a rather bleak and certainly very upsetting tale, as Bettany’s Darwin not only faces opposition from religious types who refuse to believe in dinosaurs, let alone evolution (including his own wife, Emma, the kind of devout Christian who condones having her daughter – a bright girl who does believe in dinosaurs – tortured by their local clergyman), but also experiences an ongoing mystery illness, as well as a heart-shattering loss.
And kills a whole lot of pigeons.
The film does not shy away from the darker side of Darwin’s life, opening with a very, almost unashamedly colonial sequence, and showing us a man of science who was, nevertheless, very much a man of his time. And that time was often an unpleasant one, especially when it came to the very questionable medical practices prescribed for assorted illnesses – opium as a pain reliever! Poison for tuberculosis! (Not they knew it was tuberculosis.) Icy cold water as a… well, I’m not even sure what that was supposed to be curing. Also, there was the dominance of of the Christian religion in everyday life, and the subsequent vitriol that Darwin unleashed upon himself with his work, which many believed to be heresy. Love that they also mention Alfred Russel Wallace here: the naturalist who independently came up with his own theory of evolution amidst Darwin’s decades-long research, spelling the whole out in a 20-page paper, and spurring on Darwin to produce the slim tome that is his greatest legacy.
As biopics go, this one is pretty unflinching, but it spends way more time on Darwin’s family life – and his grief- and drug-induced madness – than one might have supposed. (It turns out it is based on a book, Annie’s Box, all about the Darwins’ beloved eldest daughter, which perhaps explains this, but it is still rather jarring.) I didn’t hate that part, especially since the young actress who plays Annie is very engaging, but it certainly wasn’t what I thought I was signing up for. I was expecting way more about the writing – excuse me, creation – of Darwin’s magnum opus, and way less about his family drama. So little, in fact, was this movie actually about the creation of On the Origin of Species that, in both the prologue and epilogue text, they misnamed the book! (Call me pedantic, but that “On” is very important; how they came to make such an egregious error I cannot even imagine.)
Incidentally, I wondered why Jennifer Connolly was in this very English movie, only to discover that she and Paul Bettany have been married since 2003. Who knew? And it must be said, she makes a very convincing wife of Paul Bettany – not to mention a very convincing woman of faith, and a very convincing English wife and mother of the Victorian era. She is really very good here—as is everyone, as one would expect from such an accomplished cast. And the production is generally very well done, from the costuming to the cinematography to some very picturesque locations.
It’s a pity, then, that the overall experience of the film does not equal the sum of its parts. But I did learn a lot about Charles Darwin that I didn’t know before, so I can’t be sorry that I watched it. If nothing else, I feel like I now have a more thorough understanding of his theory of natural selection than I previously had gleaned from reading the actual book about it.
But hey, unlike this movie, at least I know its correct title.
Adapted from the novel Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes
Written by: John Collee
Directed by: Jon Amiel
Starring: Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam
WHERE I WATCHED IT: Stan.