(PG) Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly
This is not the Darwin with whom most of us are acquainted — old, bearded and austere. Here we see him as a young, married man with a family on the brink of one of the greatest theories of the modern world.
The film details a very specific time in Darwin’s life — between the untimely death of his oldest daughter Annie (Martha West) and the publishing of his book On the Origin of Species.
Darwin’s theories depicted nature as a battleground, a battle won by the strongest. But it was his own strength — both emotional and physical — that would be tested by publishing his controversial theories.
His mental and physical health gradually buckles under the stress of a challenged marriage (his wife Emma is a devout Christian) and the guilt and grief of a lost child.
Told in a collage of images from past and present, the film details his memories of Annie and his reconciliation and passionate reconnection with his wife.
Through careful and rigorous study Darwin was increasingly aware of suffering in the world. His theory of natural selection was dependent on the death of species less suited for survival. This acute connection with suffering in the natural world was never more present than with the death of Annie, his ten-year-old daughter.
Historians record that Annie’s death had a profound impact on Darwin. There is some dispute historically that it was Annie’s death or his studies on natural selection that led him away from a belief in God.
Here the film cleverly melds the two and while he struggles to come to terms with Annie’s death, he also struggles with the idea that he may undermine that which is helping his wife come to terms with the loss of their daughter.
Darwin is acutely aware of the impact his theories will have on the world as well as his family.
“It changes everything. Suppose the whole world stopped believing that God has a plan for us,” Darwin tells his daughter.
“I think you’re at war with God Charles. I think we both know it is a battle you cannot win,” Emma tells Charles as they debate the consequences of his theories.
Paul Bettany’s achingly felt portrayal of a man caught between love and the consequences of his actions is writ large in his passionate performance. Ditto, Jennifer Connelly’s performance (and Bettany’s real-life wife) as the women who knows intimately the eternal consequences of her husband’s theories.
The scenes where Charles is in the company of his daughter Annie (played beautifully in a debut performance by Martha West) are the beating heart of the film. His affection for Annie and his own deterioration seem inextricably linked.
Those who expect this film to advocate Dawkins’ view of the world may be disappointed.
And those worried that their Christian worldview will be challenged are in for the biggest treat: rather than advocate the death of God, the film has many discussions about religion, faith and science which will no doubt engender continued discussion well after the credits roll.