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Released near Charles Darwin’s birthday, Creation is a mainstream British film that tells one story from Charles Darwin’s life. It’s loosely based on Annie’s Box, which was written within the last decade by a descendant of Darwin who found a box of mementoes Darwin kept to remind him of his daughter Annie who died at 10 of scarlet fever.

Absent from Creation is Darwin’s time on the Beagle sailing around the Galapagos, except in snippets of stories he tells his favorite daughter. Instead this movie focuses on a time when Darwin was sick, in his early 50s, agonizing over whether or not to publish his book. Watching Creation, you may even infer that the decision to publish his book is what caused his great sickness.

Darwin learns from Jenny the Orangutan
Darwin learns from Jenny the Orangutan

Paul Bettany sports hair the color of an orangutan Darwin befriended, but lacks the impressive beard from the famous photograph. In flashbacks Bettany is bright and delighted by his children. In the present he is sickly, hunched, and haunted by the death of his favorite daughter.

The movie doesn’t shy away from the battle between science and religion. Religion, as Darwin knew it, really did say one thing about the world, and his own studies told him another. “I shall endeavor to keep God out of it although he shall no doubt see it as a personal attack,” he says. The fact that his wife was so devout made that divide even more painful for him. He worries aloud that the loss of God will mean the loss of love and meaning, too, although his own love for his family and important work shows that fear to be unfounded.

But the movie isn’t about the publication of his book, nor about the battle between science and religion. It’s a fairly conventional script that sets up the conclusion — the publication of On the Origin of Species — and then denies its protagonist any satisfaction of that goal until he travels through the belly of the beast. In Darwin’s case, that means coming to grips with the death Annie (Martha West). She haunts him throughout the film, encouraging him to tell her tragic stories of capricious nature. “I like them,” she says, “they make me cry,” grinning all the while.

Grinning at what makes you cry is what Creation’s Darwin learns from his daughter.