A curious, vastly uneven analysis of the early cracking in the armor of Victorian society, “Angels and Insects” gets off the ground only when the warped and weird final moves of A.S. Byatt’s story come into play. Awkwardly filmed and erratically acted, this English-lensed second feature by U.S. director Philip Haas begins poorly but develops a degree of narrative and thematic interest in the final reels by virtue of its idiosyncratic application of Darwin’s “natural selection” to its study of the class system. Too rarefied and arty for general audiences and simply not good enough to make the grade as a top-drawer Merchant Ivory-style specialized release, this Goldwyn offering looks like a dubious commercial draw.
Bluntly contrasting the systematized doings of the insect world with the often confounding behavior of human beings as it dissects the perverse dynamics at work within one eminent British family, this distinctive tale has some interesting cards in its hand, but takes far too long to show them.
To properly realize the full dramatic value of this piece would have demanded great precision in the writing, directing and acting, but the potential is reached only sporadically.
Set in 1862, entire narrative is played out at the lovely country estate of Rev. Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp), an aging thinking man whose enduring faith has been called into question by the recently published theories of Charles Darwin. An insect collector himself, he has taken in naturalist William Adamson (Mark Rylance), who in a shipwreck lost the invaluable specimens he collected during a decade in the Amazon.
Utterly impoverished, William has no hope of gaining the favor of Alabaster’s beautiful blond daughter, Eugenia (Patsy Kensit), until he boldly proposes marriage to her upon learning that her fiance committed suicide shortly before their intended wedding.
Once married, they launch a feverish sexual relationship, but William’s happiness is tempered by Eugenia’s otherwise odd behavior and the sarcastic condescension of her snobbish brother Edgar (Douglas Henshall).
All this exposition is stiffly handled by director Haas, who penned the adaptation with his wife, Belinda, who also co-produced and edited. An opening ball scene is barely coherent from a staging p.o.v., and matters aren’t helped by Rylance’s halting, tentative line delivery and the women’s gaudily colorful gowns, which all too obviously echo the coloration of the brilliant butterflies that figure in the story.
Things pick up a bit when William undertakes a research project with an intellectual equal, Alabaster family relation Matty Crompton (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Pic’s best scenes come one by one very close to the end, capped by a stirring scene in which Matty lays everything on the line in a frenzy of pre-feminist self-determination and will. With this impassioned outburst, which combines nerve and nervousness, the pent-up ambition and emotion of a frustrated lifetime , Thomas steals the acting honors with the thespian equivalent of a home run in the bottom of the ninth.
For his part, Rylance slowly comes into his own, although William is far too pallid and passive to make for a compelling protagonist. On the downside, Kensit can’t provide the subtle hints of the dark, twisted side of Eugenia and, unlike the other two leads, when her big moment of revelation arrives, she immediately becomes less interesting, not more.
In the end, the film’s principal virtues stem far more from its literary values of theme and narrative surprise than from any cinematic qualities. Stylistically, “Angels and Insects” is more ambitious but less satisfying than Haas’ initial dramatic outing, “The Music of Chance,” although the two films share a certain archness and lack of ease and fluidity.
A product of what used to be the American Playhouse unit, the picture has a slightly threadbare look physically, with the central mansion setting looking simultaneously sumptuous and dingy.