As readers of her best-selling “Possession” know, British novelist A.S. Byatt is fascinated by the Victorians, by their combination of outward reserve and secret sensuality, by the pull they felt between traditional ways of belief and the new Darwinian science. With the long-awaited film version of “Possession” trapped somewhere in development hell, “Angels & Insects,” adapted from a Byatt novella called “Morpho Eugenia,” is a suitable alternative.
While not an across-the-board success, “Angels” is an intriguing film with a great deal to recommend it. Directed by Philip Haas (who collaborated on the screenplay with his wife, Belinda, the film’s editor), “Angels” is physically remarkable and well-acted, especially by the always impressive Kristin Scott Thomas. It does tend to be overly schematic and predictable in terms of plotting, but that is as much the business of the original story as of the film itself.
The picture’s vivid opening illustrates its strengths. William Adamson (Mark Rylance) is introduced dancing barefoot to the beat of exotic drums in some tropical paradise. Slowly that scene fades into a very different full-dress, white-gloved ball in 1860s England where an uncomfortable-looking Adamson has to contend with a rather different style of dance.
Adamson has a great deal to be uncomfortable about. After 10 years of working as a naturalist in the jungles of the Amazon, he was shipwrecked coming home, surviving 15 days on a raft but losing all his possessions and almost all the specimens he’d collected in the process.
Hearing of his difficulty, the wealthy Rev. Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp), an amateur naturalist himself, invites Adamson to stay indefinitely as a guest on his large estate. At that opening ball Adamson is stunned by the beauty of Alabaster’s oldest daughter, Eugenia (Patsy Kensit), and also runs into her less than gracious, in fact downright doltish, snob of a brother Edgar (Douglas Henshall).
It’s not surprising that Adamson is so affected, for one of the great pleasures of “Angels & Insects” is the unabashed gaudiness of the gowns Paul Brown has designed for the film’s women. Done in bright, shocking reds, blues and yellows, they intoxicate the eye and deliberately evoke disturbing images of oversized, unwieldy butterflies at play.
The only woman whose wardrobe is not dazzling is Matty Crompton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a poor relation who serves the Alabasters as governess. While the fragile, brittle Eugenia is given to brooding about a romantic tragedy in her past, Matty is brainy and forthright but not surprisingly frustrated and embittered at her inferior position. Scott Thomas, evocative as the Lady Anne in “Richard III,” here walks off with the entire picture, imbuing Matty with a persuasive forcefulness and despair that brings pathos to casually bitter lines like, “It’s my greatest amusement, thinking.”
Though Adamson has more in common with Matty, he is smitten with the doll-like Eugenia, even naming a butterfly species he’s discovered after her (hence the novella’s name). In the film’s most fantastical scene, Adamson courts Eugenia by causing a bevy of butterflies to flutter around her. But because of the great gap in status and money between them, the possibility of marriage seems questionable at best.
How these matters of the heart ultimately work themselves out ends up excessively cut and dried. While the Haas’ script is close to the novella (Byatt is an unabashed fan of the film) and the dialogue is smart and to the point, what is well-structured and satisfying on page can (and does) become overly obvious on screen.
But Haas, whose first film was the more problematic “The Music of Chance,” does an excellent job creating the film’s controlled, completely stylized and artificial environment. It’s a ritualistic world where the forms of behavior are exacting and must be strictly observed, where much more goes on beneath the surface than is visible from ground level. A world, this film is at intriguing pains to point out, not unlike the insect world that busies itself beneath our feet.
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: brief but intense scenes of lovemaking and full-frontal male nudity.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
‘Angels & Insects’
Mark Rylance: William Adamson
Kristin Scott Thomas: Matty Crompton
Patsy Kensit: Eugenia Alabaster
Jeremy Kemp: Rev. Harald Alabaster
Douglas Henshall: Edgar Alabaster
A Playhouse International Pictures presentation in association with the Samuel Goldwyn Co. production, released by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. Director Philip Haas. Producers Joyce Herlihy, Belinda Haas. Executive producer Lindsay Law. Screenplay Belinda Haas and Philip Haas, based on a novella by A.S. Byatt. Cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman. Editor Belinda Haas. Costumes Paul Brown. Music Alexander Balanescu. Production design Jennifer Kernke. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
* At selected theaters.