Darwin the Downer

Paul Bettany is currently all up in the box office — he’s starring in two films at the moment. Chances are, you’ve only heard of “Legion,” and that’s beyond unfortunate. “Legion,” his big-budget apocalyptic-angels flick, has turned out to be an underwhelming bust, but “Creation” — an ode to Charles Darwin — is drawing a small, but intrigued, audience.

Truthfully, “Creation” definitely isn’t for everyone. Bettany stars as British naturalist Darwin, but this isn’t the young explorer setting out for the Galapagos you learned about in biology, nor the grandfatherly figure presiding over modern science. Bettany’s plays the Darwin that evolved from one to the other in the intermediate 20-plus years between his HMS Beagle excursion and the release of On the Origin of Species.

This Darwin is fraught with both anxiety about the death of his eldest daughter and how his theory will alter the world. He is constantly concerned that his deeply religious wife will be destroyed when he releases his findings and “kills god.”

Eventually, Darwin’s research turns against him as he blames himself for his daughter’s death: She was the genetically weak product of a union between first cousins. By the end of “Creation,” our brilliant evolutionary pioneer is mad with grief, talking to ghosts and refusing to work at all.

Bettany plays his role with humble perfection. While the pace of the film is decidedly slow and pastoral, he brings a quiet intensity to each scene as a man broken by his own intellect. Even notoriously stony Jennifer Connelly, Bettany’s on- and offscreen wife, shines as the tightlipped and pious Mrs. Darwin.

An intimate look into the reclusive existence of a legendary figure in the scientific world, the story is told with surprising alacrity and intelligence, continuously reminding us that Darwin’s ideas transformed society’s concept of religion.

Historical drama is a genre that often struggles to find an audience, with the exception of epic money holes like “Titanic” and “Gladiator.” But if you have the attention span to follow a film without explosions or gratuitous nudity, then you can do no better than “Creation.” This film’s subtle majesty will satisfy most well-trained palates.

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