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January 31, 2010

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Big ideas play out well in small film

CONSIDERING its huge themes -- evolution vs divinity, essentially Darwin vs God -- "Creation" is a pretty small film.

Small actually benefits here in presenting what is, for many, a black-and-white debate about whether life on Earth developed through nature's random opportunism or the guiding hand of a supreme maker.

Rather than flailing away over the evolution question itself, director Jon Amiel casts the matter in personal terms as Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany, pictured above) wrangles with the book that would spread the theory, his own loss of faith over the death of a daughter the backdrop to his struggle.

A film about the theory of evolution itself would simply be more noise in a quarrel that has raged for 150 years and is not going away any time soon.

A film about a man whose grief threatens to drown his work, beliefs and home life, sounds like a promising story.

"Creation" doesn't aim to preach Darwinism, which would be a pointless exercise given how dug in people are on both sides of the matter. Going right to the progenitor of the issue, though, the film does reflect that contradictory beliefs can co-exist peaceably, even under the same roof, trumped by rules of attraction and devotion rooted in our genes.

Based on Darwin descendant Randal Keynes' book "Annie's Box," the film presents Darwin as a man torn between disseminating his great idea and just shutting himself in his study to wallow in mourning.

The death of his 10-year-old daughter Annie (Martha West) haunts and paralyzes him, shattering his faith and straining relations with his deeply religious wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly, Bettany's real-life spouse).

Perpetually ailing himself, Darwin faces external pressures over his evolution research -- exhortations to publish from kindred spirit Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones), stern moralizing about devotion to God from a local pastor (Jeremy Northam).

Darwin's chief conflict as he builds toward the writing of "On the Origin of Species" is what the book means for his departed daughter and her mother's conviction that the girl's soul lives on eternally.

As period dramas go, "Creation" is quiet and modest, sparse in action and decked out with classy but unassuming costumes and sets.

Connelly is austere and rather flat save in one cathartic emotional outburst. The heart of "Creation" is Darwin's relationship with Annie, played out in flashbacks and fantasy conversations the man has with his dead daughter.

Bettany and newcomer West beautifully capture the sweet joys of a father and a bright, favored child, along with the momentous deprivation when she's no longer there.

Interesting that the science-minded "Creation" opened the same day as Bettany's religion-themed action thriller "Legion," in which he plays the Archangel Michael in a battle over the fate of humanity. Hollywood moves in mysterious ways.


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