Directed by Peter Greenaway and released on French TV as part of the series L’encyclopédie audio-visuelle on July 16th 1993.
Peter Greenaway gives us a quite different biographical film about one of the most influential figures in modern history: Charles Darwin.
Told in 18 tableaus, Greenaway directs the film and presents us what looks like a play. Mainly shown in Darwin’s study, a fantastic set is conceived of the ship which Darwin sailed around the world in, and we’re even subjected to a vast family feast. Debates are hinted at, but ultimately the story is told by the narrator (voiced by Jacques Bonnaffé) who eloquently recites Peter Greenaway’s grandiose script.
The narration we are provided in this script is very fair and balanced with regards to the topics at hand, and at times we are told that such and such a scene was contrived specifically for that scene and that it is the job of the costume designers or the work of a group of actors; which is what the narrator tells us when we see an asylum of lunatics acted out on screen. This is a very interesting way to give us the story and I found it to be a very refreshing way to tell a biographical story.
In typical style Greenaway gives us sweeping camera movements and rarely do you see a cut take place save for in between the tableaus. This gives us even more reason to make us feel like we are watching a play on the stage at the local theater. While the narration is very fair as mentioned, it does feels like at times that it just needs to let the characters speak and for a scene to play out: for example in the scene where all the different philosophers, naturalists, scientists, etc. were gathered for the debates and the camera just follows them all and they each stare at the camera with an unsure eye as the narrator tells us about how Darwin opposed them with his theories – but I guess Greenaway would rather let the narration tell the story and not the actors. Either way, it falls short for me due to this lack of drama and ends up feeling like a reconstruction documentary.
Even though this is how it feels by the end of the film, it does not take away from the sheer brilliance of the work itself. At times it reminded me of two period pieces: Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (which you can find a review for here on my blog) or Leslie Megahey’s Schalcken The Painter. Both give very realistic recreations of the periods in which they were set, while actually being dramatic narrative films: that of course is where they differ with Greenaway’s Darwin. That alone is something which you can commend him for, and when you compare it with some of his other works you see the reasons why he chose to do this film in this way.