Possible spoiler alert!
Well I, for one, enjoyed the film even though I was careful not to expect too much from a subject matter seemingly so offensive to our largely religious society.
Paul Bettany was perfect for this role, and I was so pleased to see this character as a distinct but reminiscent portrayal of the naturalist doctor from the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I must admit that I actually preferred the portrayal he gave of Darwin (even if it was not expressly stated in that film that he was Darwin, I remember being struck that this was Darwin when I was not enjoying the ship to ship battles in that film) in Master and Commander purely because it showed what I think was his most defining feature, his intense appreciation and curiosity about the natural world. To be fair this film dealt with a different view of Darwin and was a good piece of film in its own right, so the two are not directly comparable, but this was much more of a downer than the other movie and I was perhaps not in the mood for a drama.
I really appreciate Jennifer Connelly as an actress, she delivers a powerful performance, and captured really well a strong, elegantly poised woman, genuinely concerned for the potential religious and social repercussions of her husbands work and I liked that the writers later linked this to the potential to create conflict within and between the parents when their child dies – did she blame him for the death of her daughter, was it some form of retribution from god for his work, did he blame himself and fear that he had angered a vengeful god? Some of these questions are answered in the film, but what was clear was the madness that results from what I can only imagine to be the psyche splitting and overwhelmingly crushing pain of losing a child.
He and Jennifer Connelly are married in real life.
One strongly communicated theme was that Darwin’s daughter, his first born child, was the apple of his eye, a mirror into which he projected his best qualities. We see Annie the naturalist, and it is portrayed that she is much more like her Dad than the other children. This only served to heighten the sense of loss when she dies. In some ways it served as a metaphor for Darwin’s own loss of childlike innocence and a growing understanding of the world as being a battleground of competing traits (at one point we are confronted with the reality of this dog eat dog world when one creature kills another, to much protestation from one of Darwin’s daughters who turns from the scene and asks him to make it stop). Annie explains that this is the way it must be, nature functions in this way. Annie articulates what Buddhist Philosophy says we must accept about living in this place – that life is about birth and death, and that the pain of loss permeates this place.
I enjoyed the dramatic portrayal of Darwin as a man tormented by the conflict between his own religiosity including that of the society and his family around him, and the full weight of seeing a truth about the functioning and construction of the natural world. The weight of the idea causing him much psychological pain and stress, and I think may be implicated as a possible suspect in his struggles with ill health.
I did think however that it was downplayed just how religious he was, with much made of his anger towards the church, seemingly a ham fisted attempt to present the viewer with a hint that this was somehow a motivating factor behind the publication of his theory. Much more was made of this anti-religious motive (perhaps because that is closer to how Darwin is perceived by religious detractors today) than the actual motivating factor, the fact that Wallace had, independently developed the same theory of natural selection and was going to beat Darwin to the publishers.
I agree with my friend Leonie J, that the atheist of the film, Darwin’s bulldog Thomas Huxley was portrayed as abrasive, militant and dislikeable (a great disservice to a great debater and defender of Evolution and a great scientific gentleman in his own right). No surprise there – much work needs to be done to improve the accuracy in terms of the portrayal of atheists in film, and in society in general. At one point when Huxley makes some strong (for those with religious sensibilities, but not offensive) comments about Darwin’s theory sounding the death knell of god, the couple behind me gasped with what I can only assume to be shock. A small smirk of surprise spread across my face, what would these two say if they had read some of the books that I am inclined to read, or been to our local Skeptics in the Pub meet ups.
I enjoyed the film but I would not site it for it’s accuracy nor could I contend that it dealt with the full breadth of the complicated and nuanced life and works of Charles Darwin, but I’d buy it on DVD as one perspective on a multifaceted life.
Best quote of the film and one of my favourites from the work in question:
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Close of the 1st Edition, Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species, 1859.