Darwin's Darkest Hour

Last month everyone was all a-twitter about the big screen Charles Darwin biopic, Creation. The film, based upon the biography Annie's Box, was released in England with great fanfare, but whether it would come to the United States was another question altogether. A U.S. distributor was hard to come by, and speculation was rife about why this was so. Was the popularity of creationism in America making distributors wary, or did they just think that the film was too boring?

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Fortunately for us Darwin fans on the other side of the Atlantic the film finally landed a distributor and should debut here in December. If you can't wait that long, though, you can tune into the PBS program NOVA tomorrow night. Together with National Geographic, the creators of NOVA have told much the same story from a slightly different perspective in a two hour drama. It is called Darwin's Darkest Hour.

Contrary to what might be expected, Darwin's Darkest Hour does not begin in Darwin's home or on the HMS Beagle. Instead it starts in February of 1858 in the jungles of South East Asia. We are first introduced to a fever-wracked Alfred Russell Wallace, who awakes from his malarial dreams and starts scribbling notes on natural selection. He sends his essay off to Charles Darwin, played by Henry Ian Cusick ("Desmond" to fans of LOST), who is understandably distraught by Wallace's letter. Darwin had been working on a very similar idea for over two decades, and now he was in danger of being scooped. His wife Emma, played by Frances O'Connor*, insists that they develop a timeline to establish Charles' priority. Then the film gets a bit wobbly.

*[See the photo above for Cusick as Charles and O'Connor as Emma.]

Even though the film begins in 1858 much of the background information is provided through flashbacks. In his conversations with Emma, Charles recapitulates the genesis of his evolutionary ideas, handing Emma notebooks and mentioning key figures in his life. Each little tidbit triggers a flashback. There are so many that the film could make for a good drinking game; every time there is a flashback, take a drink. You will be lucky if you can stand by the time the credits roll.

Even if the technique was a little over-employed, though, I can understand the use of flashbacks to fill out the story and explain why Darwin was so upset. What I found more annoying was the way in which quotes from Darwin's letters and books were plunked down into the dialog. This felt a bit heavy-handed, especially when Cusick (as Charles Darwin) recites almost the entire "grandeur in this view of life" quotation to his wife while they are out for a stroll. Such moments felt more like soliloquies than natural parts of the storyline.

And, although it has to do more with aesthetic choice, I could not believe Cusick as Charles Darwin. He was just too good-looking for the part. In the film Darwin is supposed to be 48 years old, a time when the beetle-browed naturalist was already bald and sported mutton chops. Instead Cusick has a tangle of curly locks and is clean-shaven during the entirety of the film, and he looks precisely the same as both younger and older representations of Darwin. (In Darwin's Darkest Hour the naturalist never seems to age.) I think Cusick would have been perfect to play Thomas Henry Huxley, but it was difficult for me to connect to the film because I had to constantly remind myself that I was supposed to be watching Charles Darwin. For as much as they did to keep up the level of historical accuracy in the documentary I have to say that I think Cusick, despite the fine job he did in terms of acting, was miscast.

It was also difficult to identify precisely what the film was supposed to be about. Charles' relationship with Emma, his worries over being scooped by Wallace, the death of two of his children, and the religious implications of his work all are given prominence, but the director did not fully commit to any single storyline as the focus of the story. This makes the ending of the documentary especially abrupt. It can be difficult to follow the story arc if you are not entirely sure what story you should be following!

My nitpicks aside, however, I think Darwin's Darkest Hour could be a good introduction to the Victorian naturalist for people who do not know very much about him. Many people know the name Charles Darwin, but I can only assume that many members of the public are a bit fuzzy on the details of his life and what he proposed. Darwin's Darkest Hour could help rectify this. It shows Darwin both as a naturalist and as a family man, and with any luck the show will inspire people to dig a little deeper into the better biographical works about Darwin (like Darwin's Sacred Cause and Janet Browne's biographies).

If you are already familiar with Darwin's life and work, Darwin's Darkest Hour might not be for you. I will leave that for you to decide. If you do not know very much about Darwin, though, the drama is a quick way to achieve a better understanding of who he was. The film is not comprehensive, but it is a good starting point, and if the story interests you I highly recommend picking up one of the biographies I have linked to above.

Darwin's Darkest Hour will premiere tomorrow night on PBS stations. Check your local listings for showtimes.

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I'll certainly be watching, Brian. I'm just grateful that the cranks weren't able to keep this off television, and that we still live in a (relatively) free country where different ideas can be expressed. I still hope to see the movie too, eventually!

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 06 Oct 2009 #permalink

Just saw this movie earlier this evening. You are right Brian, it is hard to tell what the main focus is and it is easy to get lost with all the flashbacks. Overall it was interesting, though, and I learned a lot of facts I didn't know before

First of all, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed the Nova feature film, âDarwinâs Darkest Hour.â But, I got a repeated kick out of an ironic faux pas in the film: the presence of the Golden Retriever named âJoe.â He was first seen greeting the postman in 1858. Joe also appeared romping around with the children in 1859 when the postman delivered Darwinâs first edition volume âOn the Origin of Species.â The Golden Retriever breed did not yet exist in the year 1858. In fact, it wasnât even close. The breed, which was the culmination of Sir Dudley Marjoribanksâ painstaking selection and line breeding program that began in 1868, didnât exist until the end of the nineteenth century.

By Mike Bowman (not verified) on 11 Oct 2009 #permalink

What, you didn't take the golden retriever (which I myself was pretty sure Darwin didn't in fact own) as an homage to Eugenie Scott? It gave me a chuckle.

Yes, I picked up on that, but I couldn't imagine they'd be so obvious AND queue up a dog breed from the future. I can imagine a technical advisor exclaiming, "We can't show a Golden Retriever in 1858," and the PBS saying, "But we can't possibly afford a Bloodhound!"

By Mike Bowman (not verified) on 28 Oct 2009 #permalink

I finally got around to watching it (off DVR). I didn't find any of the things you complained about (except the lack of aging, which did make it hard sometimes to tell if you were in a flashback or not) annoying. In fact, I really enjoyed hearing the "grandeur" lines spoken!