So autumn arrives, and with it cinemas start to fill with Serious Films About Serious Things, with this being the prime spot for releasing films hopeful of award nomination.. This season, the tranche of weighty tomes begins at The Beginning.
2009 is Darwin’s year. 20o years after his birth, 150 years after the publication of On The Origin Of Species, there’s an inevitability to this project. Doubtless encouraged by the high-profile debates of the last few years that arose out of Richard Dawkins et al, this film chooses to tell just one part of Darwin’s story – his voyages on the Beagle are here long gone, now seen only as part of his children’s bedtime stories. Instead we have the tale of how his revolutionary book came to be written, and it’s impact on the religious community, represented by a stern vicar and his religiously devoted wife. This is a story of a marriage under strain as two work out how to love and be loved, give and receive, prefer the needs of the other.
These on-screen Darwins make for a convincing couple – not least because the actors are married to one another; Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly are always watchable performers. Rightly, Darwin’s loss of Christian faith seems to be pointed more towards the death of his daughter than his research into evolution; and intriguingly we see a rational Darwin convinced of the benefits of seemingly ineffectual water therapy for his illnesses. I have no knowledge of accuracy of this, but it makes for an intriguing self-contradiction. So it’s doubtless a well intentioned film, that would like, I think, to offer more balance than the debates of recent years have tended to offer.
It’s a shame, then, that there are some significant weaknesses. One would be that there would have been more to gain by giving at least lip service to those Christians of the time who saw no conflict between Darwin’s theories and their faith, or even the Genesis creation poems. Many still don’t seem to grasp this, and it would have only added wieght and depth to the story to address this. Another let down is that while there is nothing wrong with the film’s central dramatic device – Darwin being visited by imaginings of his dead daughter – the film’s shifts in time are often confusing and poorly signalled. That may be deliberate, but it carries hints of disrespect towards the viewer; what’s wrong with a simple caption? Finally, while the film is intelligent and reasoned, it is also just a little slow and ponderous. It takes itself just a little too seriously and slowly. Different from a mercifully absent tiresome worthiness, it could just do with a lightness of tone and deftness of touch.
This is, then a Serious Film About Serious Things. That doesn’t, though, have to mean being sombre. Wonder and joy walk hand in hand, and should have done here; sadly, the film lacks both.