You can’t help but think that somewhere in the evolution of Jon Amiel’s film about Charles Darwin, the best story just didn’t get selected. Opening with a line that the film is to be about the creation of Darwin’s book On The Origin of Species which changed the world forever, the poorly structured story that follows is focused less on Darwin’s struggle to get the book written and more on his melancholic reflections of his ten-year-old daughter Annie. It’s a frequently drab affair, which occasionally bursts into life with wildlife cinematography or bouts of Victorian bonhomie.
With last year being the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, it was inevitable that a film about the man would emerge. And there’s no shortage of drama to pick from in the great naturalist’s life: his adventures on the Beagle, his marriage to his first cousin Emma (with all those connotations of interbreeding), the deaths of three of his children, the illnesses that plagued him in later life, the “race” to get his new theory published before Alfred Wallace spilled the beans to the scientific world, or his personal and professional struggle with the religion of the day. Australian screenwriter John Collee (who penned Master & Commander and Happy Feet) peppers his story with bits and pieces from all of these, rather than finding a heart for the drama. We journey back and forth in time as Darwin’s tells his children tales from his past, and as he deals with his own and Annie’s illness. If there is an axis for the narrative it is Annie herself, but she is a contrivance far too one-dimensional to carry the load.
Director Amiel renders the story on the screen as period melodrama, and both Paul Bettany (who plays Darwin) and Jennifer Connelly (who plays Emma) seem a little lost in the melee of ideas. Except for a brief scene in the film’s nostalgic final act, neither are able to find the complexity and intensity that these two historical characters seem to deserve in their situation – passionate, intelligent and committed to each other and fundamental beliefs that are falling apart in front of their eyes. The more interesting characters around the Darwins (played by talent such as Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam and Jim Carter), men who were pushing the Darwins in different directions, are underused in the storytelling.
The production standards are all superb, in particular Jess Hall’s cinematography and Christopher Young’s music, and Darwin aficionados will be glad to know that the film was shot in Darwin’s real-life house in Kent.