I put off writing these because, frankly, I don’t have a lot to say about either of the films. I wouldn’t call either of them a bad film, but I don’t think they deliver any real satisfaction. They fall into that middle ground that seems to frustrate film critics the most, the amiably mediocre, and because there’s little room for hyperbole when writing about a middling effort, most film critics feel handcuffed in these instances.
“Creation” is the story of Charles Darwin in the years after he’d done his research but before he published “Origin Of The Species,” and it is earnestly acted by Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, and Jennifer Connelly, among others. Jon Amiel is a director whose work I’ve liked many times in the past, but this time out, there’s no pulse. I watched the film one and a half times, afraid that maybe I was too tired the first time I saw it, but there’s something overly serious and glacial about the film that just doesn’t work for me. It’s a film about ideas, but it skips across the surface of those ideas, and dramatically, the film just lays there. The major conflict in the film comes from the difference between Darwin’s ideas and the religious faith of his wife. Toby Jones plays Thomas Huxley, who pressures Darwin to publish his book because he believes it will be the final blow from science, killing religion once and for all. Darwin and his wife are already stretched thin because of a personal tragedy, so the tension between them, escalated by his work, threatens to destroy them. And that tragedy is what ties today’s two new films together, and the way both of them handle the tragedy is oddly similar.
The other new film, of course, is Mel Gibson’s return to acting, “Edge Of Darkness,” directed by Martin Campbell and based on the six-part BBC series from 1985, which was also directed by Martin Campbell. Although it’s being sold like an action-thriller, it’s far more procedural than the trailers imply. Gibson stars as Thomas Craven, a Boston cop whose daughter Emma (the fetching Bojana Novakovic) is murdered right in front of him. At first, the assumption is that the killers were aiming for him and missed, but the more Craven digs into the murder, the more he realizes that his little girl was mixed up in something very, very nasty. It’s strange that Campbell would return to material he’s already made, particularly when he nailed it the first time. The original “Edge Of Darkness” is a piercing drama, featuring an amazing performance by Bob Peck as the grieving father. The new one is fitfully interesting, but there are so many strange choices made that it ultimately doesn’t work. The film is never sure what it is… an action film, a drama, a thriller, a police procedural. The mix and match of genres can certainly work in the right hands, but Campbell, an excellent journeyman director, never quite nails it down here. The script by William Monahan feels undercooked, too, and it staggers from an interesting scene to a ludicrous scene to a scene that has no apparent point, over and over.
Mel Gibson is pretty much the only reason to watch the film, and as someone who has counted himself as a fan of the actor’s work over the years, it was nice to see him again, and he does some solid work here. He’s still a credible action lead, and he taps into grief better than almost any of the big ’80s icons ever did. That was what made the first “Lethal Weapon” work so well, and it’s what Gibson built much of his career on. Much of this film hinges on us buying into the depth of that grief, and so Martin Campbell chooses to show Mel reacting to his daughter’s memory as a tangible thing. There’s a scene in the film where he’s shaving and he flashes back to her as a little girl, watching him and pretending to shave. She has a physical presence in the film even though she’s dead, and that’s the exact same device Amiel uses in “Creation,” as Bettany spends much of the film in conversation with his dead daughter, whose passing defines him in the film. In both cases, what is meant to be poetic or spiritual or moving comes across as cloying. “Edge Of Darkness” in particular ends with a scene that is a howling misfire, corny and bizarre after the brutal violence of the ending. I understand what both filmmakers are trying to do, but part of the problem is that we’ve seen this idea dozens of times in films before, and these movies treat it like some sort of amazing visual metaphor.
“Edge Of Darkness” is derailed in part by the casting of Danny Huston as the bad guy, but not because he does poor work in the part. It’s sort of the opposite. At this point, Danny Huston is too easy to cast as a repulsive lizard of a man, and there’s little surprise to what he does here. He’s certainly repulsive, and there’s something to the idea of him as a billionaire who is so disconnected that he doesn’t understand the basic human behavior of the rest of us. But it’s easy. Too easy. I’m also confused by the role of Ray Winstone’s character in the film. In a six-hour story, there is a role for him to play, but in a film that runs just shy of two hours, he’s a distraction at best, and an actor as good as Winstone keeps pulling the gravity of the movie all sideways and wonky. You keep expecting for him to have some reason to be in the movie, and aside from a silly and unbelievable ending that was built solely to create an audience reaction it doesn’t earn, Winstone’s wasted.
When they were having trouble finding a distributor for “Creation,” producer Jeremy Thomas repeatedly asserted in the press that it was because the movie is too controversial. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Creation” has the same problem “Howl” does, in that it takes material that certainly could be controversial under the right circumstances and renders it deadly dull. “Edge Of Darkness” commits the cardinal sin of false advertising, selling itself as “Taken” for this year or even as “Ransom,” but it doesn’t deliver anything like the kick of those two films. In the end, I think both “Creation” and “Edge” are so focused on trying to be somber and grief-soaked that they forget to deliver any semblance of life.
Both films were released on Friday. “Creation” is in limited release, while “Edge Of Darkness” is playing wide.
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