Don’t expect anything too radical from this infuriatingly soft yet still pleasantly subdued and poignant screen adaptation of Randal Keynes’s book ‘Annie’s Box’, about the emotional traumas suffered by Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) as he forms the ideas destined for the pages of his magnum opus, ‘On the Origin of Species’. Director Jon Amiel and screenwriter John Collee have gone out of their way not to antagonise either side of the science/religion debate, instead offering a distinctive take on evolutionary theory as refracted through Darwin’s relations with his pious wife (a sour-faced Jennifer Connelly, offering an occasionally hilarious, literal approximation of the Queen’s English) and increasingly curious brood.
In effect reprising his role from Peter Weir’s 2003 swashbuckler ‘Master and Commander’, the ever-reliable Bettany plays Darwin as a kindly fusspot who discovers that his austere view of death as an essential cog in the machinery of natural selection has the potential to outrage those who find consolation in an afterlife of clouds, angels and spiritual exoneration. This becomes all the more relevant when his own daughter Annie (likeable newcomer Martha West) is brought down with scarlet fever and he is forced to face the harrowing corollaries of his own theory. With its bijou period trappings and Enya-lite score, it’s easy to dismiss the film as another pat, issue-ducking weepie, but on closer inspection it offers interesting and cohesive musings on the illogical nature of the human character, and how that fits with the responsibilities of scientific discovery. As the title suggests, it’s a film more interested in the birth and nurturing of ideas and their relationship to society than it is in extracting a crude drama from Darwin nervously pressing a knife to God’s throat. In that sense, it succeeds admirably.