CREATION – A Challenging Film Biography on Charles Darwin

A conversation with Randal Keynes, Darwin’s great-great grandson

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

From director Jon Amiel (The Singing Detective, Entrapment) and writer John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) comes CREATION. A psychological, heart-wrenching love story starring Paul Bettany (A Knight’s Tale, The DaVinci Code) as Charles Darwin, the film is based on Annie’s Box, a biography penned by Darwin’s great-great-grandson Randal Keynes using personal letters and diaries of the Darwin family. Creation takes a unique and inside look at Darwin, his family and his love for his deeply religious wife, Emma, played by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream). Emma is torn between faith and science, Darwin is struggling to finish his legendary treatise, On the Origin of Species. His study goes on to become the foundation for evolutionary biology. At the hub of the story is the impending death of their 10-year-old daughter, Annie. Emma and Charles Darwin are cousins. Is the death of their beloved child the will of God? Is the cause an end result of inbreeding and, therefore, the consequences of sin? Creation is an intense and beautifully directed film. The performances by its leading stars – the real life husband and wife team of Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly – are totally outstanding. I recently met with author Randal Keynes to discuss his biography on his magnanimous ancestor and its sensitive adaptation to the screen.

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PAUL BETTANY as Charles Darwin

Seán: I know how difficult it can be to transform a book into a screenplay. Did you imagine a film version as you were writing Annie’s Box?

Randal: No. I had no idea whether my story would work in other forms. I can see the differences between a work of factual biography / history and a play, film, or novel. I didn’t go out to have the book made into a film. In fact, it is only partly a film of the book. It takes important points in the book and uses them in a treatment of another big event in Darwin’s life. It makes a connection that I’m entirely happy with and it uses my book for that other purpose. I think I’m a pretty rare creature – the author who is happy with the adaptation. When I met the director, Jon Amiel, and the script writer, John Collee, before we agreed the deal – that is, the handover of the rights to use the book as they chose – because once you give them the rights, you’ve handed over the control.

Seán: Which can be very scary.

Randal: Yes, it can be very scary. Obviously, I had to meet them and find out their take on the story – what they wanted to do with it and so on. I realized very quickly that they had read the book in the way I wanted it to be understood. They found features in it that I thought were important.

Seán: What would you identify as the dominating feature that made you happy?

Randal: I think it was the understanding of Darwin’s ideas – to understand the experiences he had gone through as he was developing those ideas. It has to do with the scientist, his theories, and his experience. My book was an attempt to show, clearly, one set of experiences that lay behind one chunk of his arguments. And Jon Amiel and John Collee were interested in that, in making the links. They were interested in Emma – not as a person with confidence that Genesis was literally true. Thus – “what is my husband doing with all this nonsense about how species weren’t created by God, but evolved?” Not that. But a woman with a commitment to faith, which is a completely different thing. Her faith is as difficult to her as Darwin’s scientific knowledge is to him. He has made his commitment. She has hers. And they have to live together. They have to find a way to come to terms with the loss of their beloved daughter. So, they wanted to concentrate on the living together – those aspects of the story.

Seán: Is Annie their first child?

Randal: No, for the movie they made one or two adjustments for simplicity of the story. One adjustment was to take out Annie’s elder brother, William. Darwin saw Jenny, the orang, before he was married. He saw this extraordinary possibility that humans might be so close to animals. He made notes on all the experiments he’d like to do with human infants to see how close they were. He couldn’t carry out any of those experiments because he was a bachelor. He couldn’t go to any friend and say, “Could I just spend some time with your infant and see how close it is to that orangutan in the zoo?”

Seán: I’ve been around a few infants that made a very close connection.

Randal: So, he had to wait until he had an infant. As soon as he had one, his notebook was open. He was playing with it. He loved it.

Seán: Does William survive?

Randal: Yes. William survived and became a bank manager. He married, but didn’t have children.

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RANDAL KEYNES

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JENNIFER CONNELLY and PAUL BETTANY

Seán: When I first opened your book, it was to page 139 and your statement about Emma’s belief that suffering was linked to sin. It’s a concept I’m familiar with in the broad scope of Christianity. I was in seminary for a number of years and dealt with that aspect of the belief systems.

Randal: Yes, punishment and punishment of whom.

Seán: That and good deeds meriting eternal salvation or maybe they don’t and perhaps it’s all up to the whim of the creator. The fact that Charles and Emma are cousins doesn’t come up until later in the film. It caused a moment of shock for me. It reminded me of when I was 14 and reading Gone With The Wind and its multiple accounts of marriages between cousins.

Randal: Is there the suggestion in Gone With The Wind that close cousin marriages are bad? That it’s a big issue?

Seán: One of the ways it’s presented is the frail child of Melanie Hamilton and Ashley Wilkes, who are cousins. “The Wilkeses are always marrying their cousins.” Scarlet marries Melanie’s brother, Charles, who dies of pneumonia as soon as he’s on the battlefield. They have a child who seems to have inherited his father’s weaker links because the Hamiltons have a history of inbreeding as well. I think there is an immediate association with the exotic/erotic when it comes to notions of marriage between cousins. Where there may have been genuine love between the parties, there is also something going on about the taboo, the forbidden. So, when I discovered that Charles and Emma Darwin actually had ten children, I immediately thought – “Well, it certainly shows the passion in that relationship!” – and, let’s say, how Emma got beyond the Bible. And when you have an actress as beautiful as Jennifer Connelly portraying Emma – no further explanations are necessary.

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JENNIFER CONNELLY as “Emma” in Creation

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EMMA and CHARLES DARWIN

Seán: Creation, for me, is about the dark night of the soul. I realized as the story progressed I felt a sense of heaviness. Paul Bettany delivers an amazing performance as Charles Darwin. I could sense true frustration and the weight on his shoulders – and not necessarily about what he has discovered. And if this knowledge is divinely inspired and authorized – well, God bless it – but “what are the consequences and responsibilities I will have to bear after my thesis is released to the public?”

Randal: Yes. A remarkable point about the film is that he was particularly worried about the possible danger of cousin marriages. Because his whole theory of evolution depended on sexual reproduction and outbreeding. He discovered that plants have the most extraordinary adaptations in order to ensure that they don’t fertilize themselves – that the pollen is taken by insects and given to another plant. He spent a lot of time at Down House doing experiments to show empirically the disadvantages, the damaging effects of close inbreeding. He had come up with this theory which is all based on outbreeding, on shuffling the genes. He has married the woman to whom he is devoted – it is his first cousin and they have these children. He is suffering from this crippling illness which no one can identify or treat. His children show illnesses.

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PAUL BETTANY

Seán: How might the medical profession identify his illness today?

Randal: It’s been looked at very, very carefully by some very wise and skilled historians in medicine because it is very difficult to diagnose conditions historically. Most diagnoses are based on tests and elimination of possibilities. And if you can’t do the tests because you no longer have the patient, you can’t eliminate the possibilities. So, you end up with 10 or 15 different diseases all of which fit some of the symptoms and so on. There are various suggestions of physical illnesses. Some involving the bowels, some involving a blood parasite that he may have been infected by. And there are some psychosomatic possibilities. I think one just cannot say the condition came and went. There are many times, quite as acute, as they show in the film.

Seán: Perhaps I’m imposing this, but was there a sense of relief when he hands the finished work to Emma and says ‘you take care of it’? Was he better or was his spirit lifted?

Randal: I’ve been looking at all his letters through the period of the writing and until he handed the manuscript over to the publisher. That sense of relief when he finished it and handed it over was intense. He actually had a breakdown during the period of the writing because he was always so highly stressed. And because he was trying so hard to make the book clear and understandable to the general reader. At one point he was writing about “my cursed manuscript” and so on. When the publisher finally sends him his copy of the book, he says, “How wonderful to see my child.” He often talks about his most cherished ideas as “my child” and link that with Annie.

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ANNIE DARWIN & MARTHA WEST as “Annie”

Seán: When you were doing your research were you working with his actual letters?

Randal: I was very lucky because my father had inherited all of Emma’s little pocketbooks. I had them on my desk as I wrote. Emma uses them to jot down Darwin’s symptoms which she needs to remember so that she can tell the doctor. There are two pages of them in the book, both about Annie.

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Pages from Emma Darwin’s diaries.
Annie’s birth and death, 2 March 1841 & 23 April 1851.
Photos from Creation, (movie tie-in) by Randal Keynes.

Randal: The first is two days before she gave birth to Annie. The doodle is a pota pigeon. She’s not saying anything, just a little signal to herself. And then she is confined. But nothing of the birth itself. The other is Annie’s death. Just as she noted Darwin’s symptoms. She is receiving letters everyday about Annie’s death. What he says in the film are the words in his letters. In the letter in which she says, “We lost her” – he says, “She died at twelve o’clock.”

Seán: How long did it take you to create the book?

Randal: Three years. I was working at the time and the British Library – which is like the Library of Congress – was on the way home from my office.

Seán: How about for you personally? What is the growing-up experience knowing what your lineage is? Were there the elements of questioning – of faith and common sense reality?

Randal: My father’s a scientist, my mother’s father was a scientist. I’d been brought up in Cambridge in a community of scientists. I have lived with this figure in my family and was fascinated how he had been as a person when I took up this story.

Seán: I think the film is totally engaging as far as the personalities are concerned and the story is presented in a way that we can all understand. I come from an experience of watching Masterpiece Theatre for years and years and am long-accustomed to its atmosphere and style. Creation seems very much along those lines to me and is ultimately appealing.

creation

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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