Insects are fascinating when observed through a glass, but most of us have a squeamish reaction when confronted with the reality of bugs. This costume drama invites that same reaction to its characters.
Adamson (played with impressive restraint by Mark Rylance) is a naturalist who has just returned from the Amazons to visit his benefactor, sir Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp). Adamson’s insect collection and all his research was lost in a shipwreck, so he is forced to ask for work cataloguing the Alabaster scientific collection. Alabaster agrees and Adamson is humbly grateful, true to his quiet, gentle nature.
R for nudity and sexual situations
Did You Notice?
Eugenia Alabaster (Patsy Kensit) encourages Adamson’s affections. She doesn’t really love him, but if she doesn’t marry before her younger sister (which is imminent), she will be considered unfit for marriage. Adamson, on the other hand, is taken with Eugenia, even though he understands her motives. He believes that once they have children she will grow to love him.
Eugenia’s brother Edgar (Douglas Henshall) is prouder than Adamson, with less education, yet he finds superiority over him because of his breeding. When he learns that Adamson might wed his sister, he is insulted and put out. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Edgar, inebriated, mercilessly insults Adamson, trying to goad him into a fight. Adamson remains calm and logical, defusing the situation.
Matty (Kristin Scott-Thomas) also lives with the Alabasters. She is as interested in science as Adamson, but being a woman, has not had the formal training. Matty occupies her time by observing and cataloguing the insects on the Alabaster grounds. She hopes to study them and publish a book with Adamson’s help. (She is also the only one who observes the social structure of the Alabasters without becoming entangled in their affairs.) She is Adamson’s intellectual equal, a much better match for him than Eugenia, but because both he and Matty are poor, his notions of propriety keep him from marrying her.
As closely as the characters scrutinize the breeding habits of insects and animals, the film investigates those habits of the main characters. The comparison is made more strongly with the movie’s Oscar-nominated costumes (the female Alabasters wear dresses which make them look like bees and butterflies as they flit about the flowers). Angels and Insects tightly draws together Victorian society, sexual morality, insect life, evolution, eugenics, and genetics.
Angels and Insects is very well written (by Belinda and Philip Haas) and directed, operating on several levels at once. Adamson is gentle and naive enough to take things at face value. But underneath the surface of the Alabaster household there is a hive of unseen activity — activity of the basest, most animal kind — always implied through careful filmmaking technique.
It’s like looking at a butterfly. The big wings, intricate and beautiful, draw your eye. It’s not until after much staring that you finally notice the repulsive bug at the center of the wings.
Perhaps the best recommendation I can give is that this film deserves to be seen twice. The first time will fascinate you. The second time will make you squirm.