Sunday, December 4, 2011

Darwin documentary

Yesterday evening on TV, like millions of viewers, I could have watched the election of Miss France. Instead, I was attracted by an Australian-produced documentary fiction on the Arte channel: Darwin's Lost Paradise, written and directed by Hannes Schuler and Katharina von Flotow for Chapman Pictures of Petersham (Sydney).

This movie, which came out in 2009, describes the four-year voyage of Charles Darwin on the small 240-ton brig Beagle, under the command of Robert FitzRoy. Technically and pedagogically, the movie is perfect, and I agree entirely with this review in Télérama:

The French journalist Emmanuelle Skyvington criticizes the dramatic style of this otherwise splendid production: "The fictional parts, cruelly lacking in force, are limited to illustrations of what was seen by Darwin (mute from the beginning to the end of the movie) and the specimens he encountered." I would go further than my daughter and claim that most 19th-century fictional documentaries produced by Germany, Britain, the USA and Australia are inevitably technically audacious but absolutely lousy from the point of view of casting, acting and dramatic content. That's to say, in a nutshell, they're rarely realistic. For some strange reason that I've never understood, only the French seem to excel in producing extraordinary 19th-century movie stuff, with actors that behave like real human beings. Recently, for example, I've seen some marvelous presentations of short stories by Guy de Maupassant, often in rural settings.

In the special case of the Darwin movie, the problem is that the director and writer are so respectful of their hero, Darwin, that they're simply afraid to transform him into a real person. So, he remains perpetually insipid, like the motionless subject of an oil portrait. The unfortunate fellow doesn't even have the right to make facial expressions, or express himself in any visible way whatsoever. So, he's utterly devoid of emotions. We're told that he was extremely seasick at the beginning of the voyage, but it would have been unthinkable for the German creative team to show our hero with a green face (not that I particularly wanted to see such an image) feeding the fishes over the side of the Beagle. All Darwin's allowed to do, from one end of the movie to the other, is to admire nature, collect specimens, stroll around a little, attend church services aboard the ship, and write. I was reminded of the old-fashioned images of Catholic saints, who are expected to appear as perfect creatures in an artificial world. Ah, my poor Saint Darwin!

Finally, the English title of this movie annoys me greatly. Darwin never lost any kind of paradise. On the contrary, he revealed to us the magic mysteries and beauties of science. And his ingenious explanations concerning the marvels of the living world made it clear to us that we inhabit a glorious world where there are no gods.


  1. Thank you for the review.
    I ordered the DVD from Amazon UK.

  2. Merisi: In speaking of this production, I tended to be excessively critical. It is indeed a wonderful movie, and particularly didactic. On the other hand, I've spoken with other people who saw the movie on French TV the other evening, and we all tend to agree that it was rather infuriating to find that Darwin never uttered a single word throughout the movie. That was obviously a deliberate decision on the part of the movie-makers. I forgot to mention that the movie contains lots of interesting interviews with present-day scientists from several countries. I must order the DVD.

  3. My copy has already been dispatched from the seller!
    I am really looking forward to watch it. Thank you again for the tip, I would have missed it with you mentioning it.