"Angels and Insects" is a low-key, slow boil, fish-out-of-water tale set in Victorian England that exerts an increasingly hypnotic effect as it unfolds. A thoughtful, unhurried study of the soulless strictures and hypocritical conventions of so-called polite society, "Angels and Insects" suggests there is more nature in human nature than we might like to admit.
The film centers on William Adamson, a natural history pioneer who returns to England in 1858 quite broke after several years in South America. A wealthy benefactor and insect collector invites William to live on his estate, where the new member of the household is instantly smitten with the oldest daughter, Eugenia, a fragile, slightly cracked woman whose beauty can't mask an abundance of pain and fright.
The first third of the movie concerns itself with the soft-spoken William's cautious and reserved efforts to both fit into the slightly bizarre English domicile and convey his affection for the timid Eugenia. Director Philip Haas, best known for his last film, "The Music of Chance," subtly evokes the contrasts or, rather, the parallels between primitives in South America and refined British upper-crusters. If passion and spontaneity are the touchstones of jungle life, repressed sex hangs in the air of the household like heavy lavendar. A restrained filmmaker, Haas has no interest in broad comedy or mean-spirited broadsides. Metaphor is his game, and he occasionally errs on the side of obscurity.
But his dialogue is a treat, as in a scene where Eugenia's drunken, spoiled brother tries to provoke the infuriatingly well-mannered William into a fight. William sidesteps the challenge and, equally deftly, tap dances his way into winning Eugenia for his bride. Unfortunately, she quickly turns into a pastry-devouring hypochondriac like her mother. Forced to look elsewhere for intellectual stimulation, William becomes friends with Matty, a poor cousin with remarkable insights into the insect world. The plot, as they say, thickens
William grows stronger as the movie progresses and, interestingly, Mark Rylance's performance as this man imprisoned in a circumscribed society also becomes more assured and entertaining. "Angels and Insects" is based on the novella "Morpho Eugenia" by A. S. Byatt, and it succeeds better on intellectual grounds than emotional. Nonetheless, see "Angels and Insects" in the proper mood and you'll be riveted, as I was.
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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