The Origin of Speeches

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A filmmaker donated a big box of DVDs to the Art College so I took a few home. One was CREATION, directed by Jon Amiel, produced by Jeremy Thomas, telling the story of Charles Darwin’s struggle to write his magnum opus in the face of his deeply religious wife’s opposition, and while reeling from the death of his eldest child. I thought it might be terribly middlebrow, and in part it is, but it’s also well worth a look. I knew Fiona would be interested because it has Bambidirk Counterbath Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Jones in it, both of whom rick up in the same carriage at one point, and Jeremy Northam for good measure. We don’t get enough Northam these days.

Chas. D. is played by Paul Bettany, in a succession of unattractive wigs (the very first shot of him displays an unwise amount of cheesecloth), who’s very good in a tough role. The character is anguished more or less throughout — Darwin was plagued by horrible, possibly psychosomatic discomforts during the writing of his famous book , and Bettany has to display suffering in every scene without getting monotonous. He just about succeeds. His real-life wife, Jennifer Connolly, plays Mrs. D, with impressive toughness, never apologising for the way the character is or trying to win excessive favour from the audience.

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Jeremy Thomas is attracted to classy literary adaptations and subjects that can easily seem middle-brow and uncinematic, but when he’s working with a Bertolucci or a Cronenberg the risk is obviated. Jon Amiel isn’t in that league — he benefited from working with the inherently idiosyncratic Dennis Potter in TV, bringing a restless, kinetic pizzazz to the proceedings. Here, adapting a novel himself along with John Collee, his style seems merely commercial, over-eager to keep things moving and be big and fancy. Slow motion shots, hand-held, steadicam, crane shots, jump cuts — everything is thrown at it, and not everything sticks. Fiona complimented the film for the moments which seem simplest — in fact, there’s a lot of craft and cunning going on even in these moments, but the quieter tone WORKS in a way that the more hectic and pushy style doesn’t. You can’t tart up a middlebrow think piece and pass it off as slam-bang entertainment.

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The one really disappointing element of the disc was the extras, which all sounded really interesting but were horribly made — the thing called Debating Darwin wasn’t a debate at all, but a series of statements, filmed separately, by a pro-evolution guy, another pr-evolution guy who was also a Christian, and a creationist. Giving that guy a platform and pretending that he was a proper scientist on an equal footing with Lewis Wolpert was a travesty. Like inviting a holocaust denier to take place in a piece called Debating Hitler. People with these views exist, regrettably, and it’s perfectly fine to acknowledge this, but putting them on an equal footing with actual intellects who actually respect the facts is irresponsible in the extreme. Deduct ten points.

Fiona thinks further points should be deducted for the fact that the baby orangutan who appears costumed in Victorian garb as Jenny the Ape receives no screen credit, despite being prominently featured even unto the movie poster and DVD cover.

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12 Responses to “The Origin of Speeches”

  1. Fee here – That orang was just a gift that kept on giving. In an interview about filming the scenes with her, Bettany paints a vivid picture of a delightfully playful and inquisitive creature. First of all she pulled him into the cage with her, and he was amazed by how strong she was, then she ripped off his wig because she didn’t like it. A sentiment shared by David. No-one knew what would happen, but none of them were prepared for the absolute gold she gave them – stealing his pencil and drawing in his notebook, playing the harmonica, putting her hands over her ears when HE plays it. She’s just about the best thing in the movie and then they don’t even credit her!

  2. “Darwin was plagued by horrible, possibly psychosomatic discomforts during the writing of his famous book”

    He may well have had Chagas disease, caught from a great black bug of the Pampas which he kept and fed on his own blood.

  3. Yikes! That’d do it!

    The film doesn’t go into that, but shows him feeling better after hydrotherapy sessions during which he talks about his feeling with Bill Paterson — alternative therapists are often better at engaging with their patients and giving them time — implying that perhaps the problem was emotional.

    But I like the great black bug theory too.

  4. Always intrigued by intelligent animals used in films. They don’t get what cameras do (I assume), but they do get that the humans want them to do something and are generally eager to oblige.

    I wonder if they ever puzzle over why the humans want it or simply regard it as “play.”

  5. Darwin’s ‘bug’ problem in South America brings back memories of chilling stories about grotesque blood drinking bugs in at least one short story by Horacio Quiroga, an interesting Uruguayan wrtier obsessed by the jungle, ‘la selva.’ The one I’m thinking of is a horror story about a giant tick-like thing hidden in a pillow, feeding off a sick child.

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horacio_Quiroga

  6. Hydrotherapy? Cue Oscar Levant!

  7. In this case, “Jenny the ape” seems to have completely set the agenda — Bettany took direction from HER.

    Fiona read up on Chagas disease and the giant bug that inflicts it, but couldn’t find any evidence of Darwin himself giving suck to one, though he provides vivid accounts of its transformation from wafer-thin to bulbous and balloon-like, gravid with hemoglobin, after feasting on his companions.

    I will read that story when I’m feeling braver!

  8. Fee – Here she is, being amazing and UNCREDITED. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9V2N4nQAr5I

  9. “alternative therapists are often better at engaging with their patients and giving them time”

    There was no such thing as “alternative therapy” then- or nothing but!
    It was when homeopathy gained a good reputation because at least it did no one any harm, unlike most other treatments available then. It’s also likely that Annie’s death removed any possibility of belief in a benevolent god from Darwin’s thoughts so that he could follow the grim logic of natural selection without distraction.

  10. Aha! I’ve uncovered the background to the ‘Jenny’ scenes – http://creation.frankiandjonny.com/flash/#/cast_and_crew/jenny/

  11. I didn’t think this movie got enough attention. It had flaws, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Thanks for the piece.

  12. Thank YOU. Yeah, it’s at least intelligent, and a factual story that has a decent amount of respect for the facts.

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