Wednesday, October 7, 2009


This is mostly a Darwin post but we start with Ricky Gervais. Well, if you know that Gervais's new movie, The Invention of Lying, is out and that it involves his character being the first person in the world ever to tell a lie, and that (spoiler-ish alert) he ends up inventing religion, to comfort his dying mother then you can probably see where I'm going with this. It's a fun movie, although something of a disappointment in terms of its Hollywoodness, such as its relentless pursuit of a happy ending. It was co-written and -directed by Gervais and someone called Matthew Robinson (he has no other credits on IMDb); apparently it was originally Robinson's script so I'm curious as to what Gervais's input was. Certainly some scenes are much tighter than others - the ones where the love-story plot doesn't figure, basically - and the tightest of all is the ultra-fast scene with Stephen Merchant and, uh, Barry from EastEnders. But the scene where Gervais's character addresses the crowd with his information on the man in the sky is hilarious. Not every-word-perfect hilarious like Life of Brian, but it does some really neat skewering.

Which leads us to the skewer-wielder-in-chief, Richard Dawkins. His new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, is all about evolution. Not about God. In book terms at least, Dawkins has moved on, although not everyone has moved on with him. He was visibly frustrated on The Late Late Show when the whole God delusion thing was being rehashed. Science = boring; atheism = controversial = good telly, perhaps? Greatest Show isn't boring, though, providing as it does a sort of whistle-stop tour of the masses of evidence for evolution. There have of course been many books on the topic before, but Dawkins's name helps with the selling, and he is a very entertaining writer. He gets the occasional dig in, but I can't imagine the hardline God-botherers will be reading anyway (except to quote-mine, of course). He's very succinct on things like radioactive dating and continental drift, and his dismissal of the "gaps in the fossil record" argument is a good one: imagine a murder trial where there's no actual eyewitness but every other piece of evidence clearly points to the accused - until video footage emerges of the accused on his way to commit the crime, carrying the murder weapon, and his lawyer argues that the gap in the video record actually reduces the amount of evidence against his client! Hopefully there will be quite a few readers who don't know much about evolution but aren't happy with the biblical explanation, who will read this book and "get it".

And finally, Darwin himself, or rather Paul Bettany's version of him as conceptualized by a screenwriter and director. I was initially thrilled at the prospect of the film, not to mention the cheeky title Creation, but some aspects of the trailer had left me wondering whether there might be a bit too much Darwin-the-man and not enough Darwin-the-scientist, or, worse, that there might ultimately be some compromise (a deathbed conversion, even!) and (pace Huxley's "You've killed God, sir!") the deeper implications of his work might be fudged. I needn't have worried. The film does focus on Darwin the man, specifically the terrible impact his beloved daughter Annie's death had on him, causing him to delay writing Origin and sink into mental and physical collapse, while his wife Emma, a devout Christian, struggles in her own way. It's a well-structured screenplay, essentially telling two parallel stories - the "present day" as Darwin's peers urge him to write the book, and the past in which we see Annie and get the occasional discussion of Darwin's ideas. There's no single thorough going-over of evolution (I was kind of hankering after a JFK-style summation of all the evidence) but clearly that's not the film they wanted to make, and I think the piecemeal approach worked very well. One of the more memorable flashback scenes is a picnic at which Darwin talks with the vicar about Malthus, then we watch a time-lapse depiction of death and decay, as a bird falls from a nest, dies, and is consumed; this is followed by a church scene in which Darwin fails to join in with "All Things Bright and Beautiful", and walks out when the vicar begins sermonizing about God and the birds of the air etc. The two parallel strands reach their crises at the same time, in scenes of profound despair. (kind-of-spoiler alert) The climactic confrontation with Emma is blunt - she accuses him of not letting Annie stay in the grave, and he explodes with words to the effect that she's the one keeping Annie alive - on a cloud, with fairy wings. This, of course, is the deepest, and bleakest, implication of all. But the two parents recover from the crisis, and the film ends in hope. It's not often one gets to predict the last line of a film, but I guessed right. Really, there's only one way they could have ended it, with Darwin's voiceover:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

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