Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany Get TIFF Underway With Creation

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The Toronto International Film Festival officially commenced Thursday with its opening-night selection Creation. Director Jon Amiel's semi-biopic of Charles Darwin -- featuring Paul Bettany as the totemic, tormented scientist and the actor's wife Jennifer Connelly as Mrs. Darwin -- arrived as the first British film ever selected to open the 34-year-old festival. The couple was on hand to introduce the early screening, but Amiel (pictured here with his stars) wound up doing all the talking onstage. And, perhaps regrettably, most of it onscreen as well.

"You are probably thinking, 'Do I really want to sit here and watch a movie about a dead, bald British guy?'" Amiel said in his introductory remarks. "I wasn't sure I wanted to make it actually, until John Colley, my dear friend sent me Randal Keynes' book Annie's Box. Really, at that point, it became a journey for me. Darwin was a figure for me, as I expect he is for you, about as remote as one of those heads on Mount Rushmore -- a giant, forbidding figure behind a huge beard. But really, what John and Randal began for me was a journey of proximation -- a journey toward the edifice of Charles Darwin. And that's a journey I hope you'll take with us tonight."

Believe me, I tried. Creation begins with a flashback; Darwin tells a story to his late daughter Annie about the temporary captivity and attempted civilization of tribal children by the British. It's a device Amiel and Colley revive to point of fatigue, a couple of kids themselves, tugging their subject's pants-leg for every shred of raconteurial momentum they can find in the story of a man whose colleagues proudly claimed "killed God" with his theory of evolution. Had they left him to his crisis of faith -- begun by Annie's death at age 10 but most radically dimensionalized in the years leading up to his seminal book The Origin of Species -- they might have had a movie. But their heavy investment in that father-daughter dynamic yields the stuff of exposition, not drama, and Darwin the scientist (and the husband) is reduced to a brooding, whimpering intellectual parody who wouldn't be so out of place in a Woody Allen movie. (Indeed, maybe one of his films shot by Sven Nykvist; Creation admittedly does look quite fantastic.)

Which is kind of weird and kind of not, because Amiel said that he and Colley worked through Keynes' material until they felt like they really knew Darwin. And that wasn't all they knew. "There was only one person that we could ever imagine playing him," Amiel continued. "Now, people stand up here and say this sort of thing all the time, but it's true. It's not that we couldn't get anyone else. We always dreamed that Paul Bettany would play Darwin. This performance -- I envy you seeing it for the first time -- is extraordinary. It's more than a performance. It's an incarnation of an extremely complicated, passionate and utterly wonderful man. And when Jennifer Connelly agreed to play Mrs. D., I was excited beyond measure."

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As he should be; the quiet pair glimmered onstage last night at the Elgin, and their chemistry boosts Creation's potency to the extent it can. But Amiel and Colley were blurrily close to Darwin if they really did idealize Bettany for the role; he's simply too handsome, too lean, too... slick to pull off the pasty, balding recluse stricken with panic attacks and perceived to be "at war with God." For all the revolutionary principle he embodied, the least Darwin deserves is an actor capable of physically channeling that gravity. The ever-stern Connelly communicates Amiel's easier burden of unquestioned faith; her stiff upper lip hardly seems honest, especially in the wake of having lost a child. She's a counterpoint as opposed to a woman.

But that's a peccadillo in Toronto. Creation will no doubt find a buyer in this city's tire-kicker convention grounds, and with some trimming (particularly of the dead-daughter subplot; not even Antichrist milked its child-death this prodigiously), it could find a modest, respectable big-market audience. If Amiel and Co. learned anything from their Darwin studies, then they should know: It's all about adaptation.



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