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Science, emotion clash in ‘Creation’

Almost 50 years after the Scopes “Monkey” trial received the Hollywood treatment in the original “Inherit the Wind,” the eternal friction between science and religion is back on the big-screen with “Creation,” which opens the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday. The British period drama tells the story of how 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin wrote his revolutionary book “The Origin Of Species” while facing opposition from his devout Christian wife and struggling with grief over the death of his eldest daughter.

It was a difficult time in young Darwin’s life, both personally and professionally. When he first advanced his groundbreaking theory that animals, including humans, evolved from common ancestors, he was challenging centuries of consensus between religious and scientific thinkers. Until that point, it was broadly accepted that life in all its complexities and forms was simply too intricate to have arisen naturally. But Darwin had painstakingly detailed the process of natural selection, showing how it was indeed possible, even probable, that nature was her own maker, concepts that have remained central to modern scientific thinking. Nevertheless, the creation-evolution dispute marches on, and the discussion now includes the theory of intelligent design, which blends science with biblical accounts to argue that God’s hand may be the guiding force behind the natural processes of evolution.

Darwin’s continuing relevance is one reason why “Creation” has been selected to open Toronto, which usually kicks off with a home-grown picture. “It’s a bit of a tradition for us to open with a Canadian film, yes,” said festival co-director Cameron Bailey. “But we haven’t always done it. We just thought ‘Creation’ was a film that spoke to our times. That tension between faith and reason was something we began to see in a number of different films, and it crystallized beautifully here, especially in that debate between a husband and wife who happen to see the world in completely different ways. It’s still pressing.”

On a cold day last October at Danes House in the county of Hertfordshire, England (doubling for Darwin’s home of Down House, which is preserved as a site of national importance but was used for some exterior shots), production on the film was in full swing. In between takes, director Jon Amiel (“Sommersby,” “Entrapment”) discussed the movie’s potentially divisive subject matter. “It’s sad to me that Darwin is considered controversial anywhere, any more than the ideas of Newton or Galileo,” he said. “I believe that some people will find things to object to [in ‘Creation’], and I hope that some people will be provoked to think harder and deeper about the ideas that are in the film. None of the people involved in this film are going to back away from that.”

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As much as “Creation” shows Darwin wrestling with his Christian faith and his scientific findings, it is also very much a story about a troubled relationship. Just as with 2004’s Oscar-nominated “Kinsey,” which illuminated the inner life of another controversial scientist, “Creation” shows the toll that work can take on a marriage -- of a couple ably portrayed by Paul Bettany and his real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly, as Charles and Emma Darwin.

Bettany is far from the bearded, elderly image many associate with the father of evolution, but as producer Jeremy Thomas (“The Last Emperor”) said: “Darwin was young once.” Casting the 38-year-old Bettany was the suggestion of “Creation’s” screenwriter John Collee, who worked with him on “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” in which the actor played a somewhat more muscular scientist and the ship’s surgeon. “We looked at old pictures and drawings,” Thomas said, “and there’s a great similarity.”

Bettany does, indeed, bear a resemblance to early portraits of the famous naturalist and on set he was eager to talk both about the character of Darwin -- “a fascinating human being” -- and the heart of the story. “I think it would work, even if it was not about him,” he said. “There’s this family in crisis. The husband and wife are becoming alienated because of this dreadful loss they’ve gone through. And it also happens to be about Darwin, who is in the process of killing off God. . . . “

The screenplay is set in two time periods. Its “past” shows a relatively young Darwin dealing with the serious illness of his daughter, Annie (Martha West, daughter of “The Wire” actor Dominic, in her first role). Its “present” shows Darwin, his skin pale and hairline receding, wrestling with worries over how his theory could change the world and with grief over Annie’s death as she appears to him in visions.

“I had the idea of making Annie into a ghost,” said Collee, who adapted the script from the nonfiction book “Annie’s Box” by Darwin’s great-great grandson Randal Keynes. “Annie is his kind of guide. She’s with him through the process [of writing]. On another level, it’s the story of a couple coming to terms with the death of a child. When Annie dies, Emma goes into religion, Darwin goes into science.”

Connelly, who mastered an English accent for the role, looked suitably elegant and yet brittle on set, as a woman who is struggling with both loss and an eroding relationship. “It is really moving,” she said a few weeks later, on the phone, of the movie’s emotional underpinnings. “These two people loved each other so much. She just couldn’t understand how he could put himself in this kind of peril: to risk writing such a thing and being separated from her and their children, from heaven, forever. He sat on it [the work] for decades.”

“Darwin struggled to deal with terrible guilt,” Amiel explained. “Terrible loss. And profound moral conflict, which in a sense, reduced to some awful movie poster tagline, is ‘What’s more important: truth or love?’ ”

It is this conflict, between reason and emotion, that is at the core of “Creation” (which will be released in the U.K. on Sept. 25 but is looking for a U.S. distributor), and the filmmakers hope that even people who distrust or disagree with Darwin might be drawn in by a very human story.

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“It is called ‘Creation,’ I suppose, partly to provoke,” Amiel said, “but it’s also a film about the act of creation. ‘The Origin of Species’ is not just one of the greatest scientific works ever written, it’s also a magnificent piece of literature. Our story is very much about creation and about the desperate loneliness of that act and the desperate tear between creativity and family life. It’s a subject dear to every filmmaker’s heart.”

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calendar@latimes.com


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