"You don't like suspense?"
"No, I don't. I'm afraid of surprises."
"I must remember never to surprise you then."
This petite exchange of the ins and outs of surprises per se, is a guaranteed herald of one gargantuan surprise that will turn the world of Victoriana upside down and in the process reveal a time abhorred sexual aberration. Does this introduction yet pique your interest?
William Adamson (Mark Rylance) portrays an entomologist who has recently come back to England after years spent in the rainforests and sweltering infernos of the Amazon. His voyage back is not without misfortune, as his ship sinks with all of his prized possessions lost to the sea. He has had a benefactor in his pursuit of scientific ventures, Sir Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp), a gentrified country minister who is the pater familias of a large number of offspring; seven girls of varying ages, and one son. Sir Harald is an ardent collector of zoological and entomological paraphernalia, and as such, was expecting great discourses of newly gained objects for his collections. Adamson does not disappoint and this is the crux of the story. He brings back a surprise, the only thing saved -- a rare species of butterfly, the Morpho Eugenia. Around this fanciful and beautiful creature, his life and the lives of those he will touch, will change forever.
One of the daughters, Eugenia (Patsy Kensit) has managed to capture Adamson's fancy, although he has nothing to offer her in the way of money or position. She is a strange being, an enigma that will not easily be solved. Her brother, Edgar (Douglas Henshall) is overly protective of her concerns, to such an extent as to raise questions in the process, but with nothing being elevated orally to debate the wherewithal's and how to's of such brotherly love. Adamson eventually marries Eugenia, but not without all of the problems that have plagued mankind since time immemorial -- in-laws and how to live with them.
A governess to the younger Alabaster children, Matty Crompton (Kristin Scott Thomas), parlays a venture into being seen and heard, much to the dissatisfaction of a jealous Eugenia who cannot begin to compete with the brains and intellect that Matty possesses and uses as she sees fit. It is through Matty that Adamson will eventually see the world through shattered rose coloured glasses, but not before the discourse of several Adamson children that Eugenia will bear and whose lineage comes into question in a most violent way.
Angels and Insects is a period piece unlike any you are likely to see now or in the foreseeable future. It is beautifully rendered and projects an image of high Victorian Gothic, much the same as William Faulkner would have realized this story if it had been orchestrated into his capable mind and hands and into the Old South. Its texture is rich and luxurious and Belinda and Philip Haas have woven a screenplay from A.S. Byatt's novella, Morpho Eugenia, into a tapestry of colours and events that mature into a symphony of intricacies and elaborations.
Mark Rylance as William Adamson, is absolute perfection in the role of a mild mannered naturalist who becomes all too unmanicured when the situation is warranted and his hand is finally forced. His slow descent into the maelstrom of deceit by his wife is masterfully brought to fruition by his skillful depiction.
Patsy Kensit as the shy and yet sexually motivated Eugenia, is a study in contrasts as she plays Adamson for a perfect fool and in the process becomes the architect of her own undoing. Her work is exacting and precise, and she is the perfect compliment to both Rylance and Henshall.
Jeremy Kemp as Eugenia's father, is a man caught in a web, who sees nothing except his own eventual demise and likening it to the world of zoology as he has always known it to be. Kemp's frustrations parallel the insect world as do those of his wife, Lady Alabaster (Annette Badland) and his children, who can be seen as the Queen of the colony and the larval progeny that a male is only good for, and how, when he has presented his services, is thrust all the more into the background of the colony. How life imitates art, or in this sense, nature.
Douglas Henshall as Edgar, is a foul debasement wearing the skin of humanity in its lowest form. He is the spoiled only son and eldest child, and his life revolves around his own pleasures and not those of others around him. He lives for the moment and is cruel in his shows of affection or attention, as he sees fit. As Adamson tells him, he serves no useful purpose. To see Kemp dress him down at the dinner table in one scene is perfect comeuppance to Edgar's egotistical ways. His father amply deflates his balloon in front of the assembled family and Edgar cowers at the bellowing. In one of the final scenes of the film, the denouement between Kensit, himself and Rylance is the volcano erupting with disastrous results for the menage a trois.
Kristin Scott Thomas is a chameleon, who discourses a new personality with each film she participates in. Her Matty is the severe governess, with a penchant for realism and an eager determination to better herself, without the courtesies of the Alabaster family, who see her as nothing more than hired help. Her scenes with Rylance show a strong woman, with a head on her shoulders and willing to use it -- something rare today in films that want to, on an all too regular basis, regurgitate women as nothing more than sex objects.
Costume designer, Paul Brown, has brought a virtual explosion of a painter's palette in designs. The rich sapphire blues, the cherry reds, yellows the colour of the sun, greens as dark as an unlit forest. The attention paid to little details and accompaniments, the jewelry, the hats, the hairstyles, evoke an era not likely to be repeated and gone forever, except through the vision of people like Brown. He is known primarily as a theatre designer (Richard II and Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes in 2000), but his foray onto the big screen is a delirious introduction to movie going audiences who appreciate a good eye for detail.
Art direction has not gone unnoticed, and the mastery of Jill Quertier, as set dresser, is amplified through the continued perfection that betrays itself with each and every scene. You are seeing the height of Victorian elegance and the world as the Victorians saw it, with all the furniture and little bits and pieces that made it the overstuffed era it has become known for. Production designer, Jennifer Kernke, has parlayed her research into a virtual field day for historians and collectors of antiquarian wares.
Cinematography by Bernard Zitzermann is spectacular! The rich and vibrant colours of the English countryside, the gorgeous interiors, his command of nature and the parades of insects that bring back memories of 'Days of Heaven' and the work of Nestor Almendros, and 'The Good Earth' and Karl Freund, with their rich camerawork sketching the world of insects and the world they live in. Zitzermann is a worthy member of that illustrious group.
Director Philip Haas tightly controls his cast and exudes a decided eye for detail and attention to all things great and small. He pulls performances from his cast that echo a complete knowledge of a time and place that they have become a part of for the time allotted.
Music by Alexander Balanescu is remarkably sumptuous and evocative of the impressionistic work of Debussy or Faure and it is seductive in its melodies and strings that draw the listener ever closer into the secret lives of this tightly strung Victorian household. It is not easy to forget this score he has wrought, and it presents a worthy accompaniment to the film.
Angels and Insects explores the various worlds of Victorian times -- the class system, science (through the published work of Charles Darwin and his "The Origin of Species"), religion, morality, mortality, secrets and lies. We are taken into a tightly knit conglomerate that dwelled within its own confines and structures, as they live their lives with specific roles to be played and parlayed into futures of their own making and desires.
Angels and Insects is not a film for everyone, and there may be those who might take offense at the subject matter existing for our perusal. For me, though, it is an elegant film, troubling to be sure, but accepted for what it is -- a statement into the way things were and sadly, are continued to this day. If you choose to see this film, you will not be disappointed, but rather enlightened into things that you may never known to have been.