by Dan Lybarger
Jon Amiel on location shooting "Creation." ©2010 Newmarket Films.
It’s been 150 years since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species has been published and 200 years since Darwin himself was born, but you’d never know from the way his ideas are still being debated.
Because the emotions that his work has aroused are so strong, the real Charles Darwin gets lost in the argument. Despite the outrage his research has aroused, Darwin was a shy man whose health problems often interfered with his work. He was also a loving husband and devoted father, so he was devastated by the death of his oldest daughter Annie at the age of 10. The loss affected Darwin throughout his life and influenced the writing of On the Origin of Species.
With the new film Creation, English director Jon Amiel and Scottish screenwriter John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) attempt to take Darwin out of the textbooks and present him as a human being. British actor Paul Bettany (Legion, The Da Vinci Code) plays the scientist, and his off-screen wife Jennifer Connelly (an Oscar-winner for A Beautiful Mind) plays Darwin’s supportive but disapproving wife. The movie opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.
While the Cambridge-educated Amiel first came to prominence for helming the documentary The Silent Twins, biopics and “based on a true story” films are missing from his résumé. He’s actually best known for directing writer Dennis Potter’s groundbreaking BBC miniseries The Singing Detective and for pairing Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones as master art thieves in Entrapment. He also Americanized the French classic The Return of Martin Guerre in Somersby and parodied spy films in the Bill Murray comedy The Man Who Knew Too Little.
Contacted by phone from Los Angeles, Amiel says that bringing the historical Darwin to life wasn’t that different from staging dramatic heists in Entrapment.
Dan Lybarger: Both Annie’s Box (the book the film is based on) and Creation present a different view of Darwin than we’ve seen before. You don’t normally think of Darwin as a family man.
Jon Amiel: No. When in fact he was. We don’t even think of Darwin as being young, but believe it or not, he was (laughs). We don’t even think of Darwin ever not having that massive beard and those huge gray eyebrows. But guess what?
That’s what excited me about making this film. It was actually not making a drama documentary, not making a PBS kind of show that was charting Darwin’s ideas and setting them in the context of his times, as much as telling the story about somebody that I believe that very, very, very few people know: And that’s Darwin the man.
Darwin’s family: his children, the animals, the livestock in his backyard, the life of British hedgerows and everything else were the material Darwin based his work on. You cannot separate Darwin’s home life, his family life, his emotional life from his work. And that’s not true of many other theoretical scientists, but it is absolutely true of Darwin and why I think it’s so important to understand the man, his family life, his emotional life. Because so much of that made its way into his scientific work.
He was a naturalist at a time when the boundaries between science and life were not nearly as sharply defined. Darwin looked for answers to the universal secrets of life in the hedgerows that surrounded his house and in the fields and in the pigeons that he reared and in his children, whom he observed keenly and compared with the young of other species. And (he) felt that all of this was a valid and valuable part of the work as a scientist. That’s why we wanted to put his family life into our film.
DL: Another interesting thing about Darwin’s story is that he and his wife Emma had disagreements about where they saw God in the universe.
JA: And how moving is that relationship, not only because you see two people with profoundly different religious views have to wrestle with the one thing that no parent should ever have to deal with: the loss of a child. But also because these were two people who loved each other deeply and were clearly each other’s best friends and had been for almost all their lives and yet who have to come to terms with this really deep and fundamental religious difference between them.
How inspiring is that relationship to anybody who has ever essayed the sort of bumpy ride that is marriage. And how inspiring it is for all these people who believe that to be a creationist or a Darwinist or an evolutionist are mutually exclusive, mutually excluding and totally antagonistic positions.
DL: You also point out in the film that Darwin’s views on religion changed throughout his life.
JA: They did change. I think he went from being what I think we’d call in England a “robust Christian,” somebody who basically believed in the establishment, who believed in a kind of Anglican broad church kind of deity. I think he went from that position to a position of, let’s call it as Darwin did, “deep agnosticism.”
There’s no evidence that Darwin converted (back to Christianity) on his deathbed. That’s a myth. He simply did not want controversy about his beliefs to swirl around his ideas. He wanted his ideas to be considered on their own merit, quite apart from whatever his religious beliefs were, which he considered to be his own business.
So Darwin at the end of his life called himself an agnostic, which was a term coined by his friend (biologist) Thomas Huxley.
DL: That’s interesting that you should mention Huxley (played by Toby Jones, Frost/Nixon) because in the film, he’s as didactic as the Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam).
JA: And in some ways rather less sympathetic. And we did that quite deliberately. Because in a sense, I wanted the audience to see Huxley as Darwin saw him, rather the way someone who espoused an evolutionist point of view might see him. In our film, Darwin sees Huxley as in a sense nothing but a threat and a disturbance.
When Huxley says to Darwin that he’s killed God, remember, it virtually brings Darwin to the point of a breakdown. With the agitation caused by that statement, we see (Darwin) hyperventilate, soaked in sweat and basically as a result, he takes to his bed.
Yes, in a sense, we see how difficult these ideas were for Darwin. For Thomas Huxley, not so much, he loved and courted controversy. Darwin hated it. He was a social conservative. He was a shy man for whom the idea of confrontation, the idea of standing up in front of a large group of people and speaking literally made him ill.
DL: Why do you think that Darwin’s ideas still attract controversy whereas his contemporary, genetics pioneer Gregor Mendel’s ideas haven’t?
JA: I think Darwin’s work more than almost any other scientist’s in the last 200 years does directly challenge the literal word of the Bible in a way that almost no other scientist’s work does. I think the combination of the challenges that Darwin’s work presents particularly to the account of Genesis plus the idea that’s so disturbing and repellent to so many people that we are descended from other animals and the apes and not therefore a species created by a deity to rule over other animals, is very disturbing to many people.
To me personally, it’s tragic that Darwin’s ides should be regarded as any more controversial than those of Galileo’s or Newton’s. The (Roman Catholic) Church has now formally apologized to Galileo for the wrongs that they did him for suggesting that the Earth was not the center of the universe and that the Sun did not revolve around it.
I feel very confident that in 200 years, a lot of our vociferously anti-Darwin friends in the conservative right of the religious community will be making a similar apology.
DL: On a different tack, in the American cable science series Mythbusters, they examined the scene in Entrapment where Catherine Zeta-Jones dodges the lasers to get to the ancient gold Chinese mask. They concluded that the image is gorgeous but that no real security system works like that. Do you have any response to that?
JA: Ha. Well, yes. (In real life), the security systems would have used infrared and not lasers, but that wouldn’t have made for an interesting story. So in that sense, drama triumphed over technology.
In telling the story of Creation, there were times when we had to take some dramatic license. We had to use our imagination to go to places neither the historian nor the biographer could go. But that I think is the job of storytellers and filmmakers. However, in Creation, I have to tell you that no science and no technologies were harmed in the making of this film.
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originally posted: 01/21/10 08:25:11
last updated: 01/21/10 08:46:28