Cinema seats

Charles Darwin’s relevance to today’s society will be explored in a four film series at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse from Monday.

We wanted a good mix between films that were difficult to see on the big screen and old favourites that deserve another airing.

Francis Neary

Cambridge University’s Darwin Correspondence Project is presenting a season of four films that explore the political, social and cultural implications of Darwinian ideas about human nature.

Expert speakers will introduce each film and there will be time for discussion after each screening.

The four films being shown this year are Inherit the Wind, The Elephant Man, Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision, and Black Venus (Venus Noire).

Organiser Dr Francis Neary said: “We chose the four films to cover a broad chronology from the early 19th to the early 20th century, and a range of themes, including teaching Darwinism, slavery and race, degeneration in Victorian society, the boundaries between normal and abnormal in the nineteenth-century sideshow, and the tension between science and art.  We wanted a good mix between films that were difficult to see on the big screen and old favourites that deserve another airing.

“The most important criteria for selection were films that would make surprising connections to Darwin's work on human nature, and that contained though-provoking material that would facilitate an interesting discussion at the end of each screening. Finally, all the films offer an account of real events, which can be questioned and discussed in the light recent historical scholarship.

“The idea of film series was conceived to bring some of the themes of Darwin and Human Nature strand of the Darwin Correspondence Project's research to a wider audience. (

The series, which runs from October 22-31, has a particular focus on Darwinian ideas about the moral sense, and race, civilisation and progress.

Added Neary: “We hope to raise awareness of the Project in an informal and entertaining way, and to show the relevance of Darwin's work to contemporary issues in society, such as creationism and naturalism, the status and dignity of humans, and the boundaries between human and animal.”

The series is supported by the Templeton Foundation and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Monday 22 October, 6pm

Inherit the Wind

Introduced and with discussion led by:  Joe Cain (University College, London) and David Kirby (University of Manchester)

Director: Stanley Kramer. Starring: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly.

USA 1960. 128 mins, b/w.

Tracy and March deliver outstanding performances as two rival lawyers in this gripping courtroom drama, inspired by the 1925 ‘Scopes Monkey’ trial of a young Tennessee state school teacher charged with illegally teaching the Darwinian theory of evolution.  Despite the film (nominated for four Academy Awards) doing much to influence understanding of the original 1925 trial, it is more a contemporary critique of McCarthyism.

Wednesday 24 October, 6pm

The Elephant Man

Introduced and with discussion led by:  Vanessa Toulmin (University of Sheffield)

Director: David Lynch. Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft.

USA 1980. 124 mins, b/w.

In this moving and delicate film, Hurt plays the horrifically disfigured John (real name, Joseph) Merrick, who was hideously brutalised in childhood and scrapes a living in freak shows. As he battles with the prejudices of Victorian Society, Merrick’s gentle and refined true character is slowly revealed but his passions are inevitably doomed to frustration.

Monday 29 October, 6.30pm

Proteus: A Nineteenth-Century Vision

Introduced and with discussion led by:  Nick Hopwood (HPS, Cambridge) and Shelley Innes (Darwin Correspondence Project, Cambridge)

Director: David Lebrun. Starring: Marian Seldes, Corey Burton, Richard Dysart.

USA 2004. 60 mins.

A rare chance to see this beautifully animated documentary about the roles of science and art in the life of the 19th-century naturalist and fanatical classifier Ernst Haeckel. The film features early undersea exploration by the HMS Challenger expedition (1872—6) and Haeckel’s intricate and wonderful drawings of 4,000 species of the single-celled organism radiolarian.

Wednesday 31 October, 5.30pm

Black Venus (Vénus Noire)

Introduced and with discussion led by:  James Moore (Open University) and Sadiah Qureshi (University of Birmingham)

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche. Starring: Yahima Torres, Andre Jacobs, Olivier Gourmet.

France/Belgium 2010. 159 mins. In French, Afrikaans and English, with English subtitles.

A realistic and sensitive depiction of the tragic story of the black domestic servant Saartjes  Baartman (Torres), who leaves Southern Africa in 1808 hoping to find a better life.  She becomes part of a humiliating carnival act in London freak shows and Paris salons, and is declared the missing link between ape and man by French anatomists.

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