In the period romance Angels and Insects, Charles Darwin's recent discoveries are at the height of popularity, prompting amateur naturalists everywhere to study the world around them. Such an interest in the natural world provides an opportunity for the penniless William Adamson (Mark Rylance), recently returned from the Amazon, to find a living cataloging the collection of the wealthy and kindly amateur insect enthusiast and collector Sir Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp). Sir Harald has a household as interesting to study as his collection: his wife, Lady Alabaster, seems to either be perpetually pregnant, eating, or fainting; his son Edgar (Douglas Henshall) takes the term supercilious to new levels; the family governess, Matty Crompton (Kristin Scott Thomas), possesses a keen mind, artistic talent, and an observing nature; and his eldest daughter Eugenia, a blonde beauty, catches the eye of William, who because of his lack of finances, believes that he can only adore her from afar.
|William woos Eugenia with a rare moth|
But William is in for a pleasant surprise. Because of the tragic death of Eugenia's former fiance, and the impending marriage of her younger sister Rowena, the Alabasters (save Edgar, "You're not one of us") are more than willing to marry off the young scientist to their eldest daughter. William at first seems to have hit the jackpot, with a gorgeous bride and lots of enthusiastic sex, but Eugenia soon turns into a distant wife, and family secrets are bound to turn his new world upside down. The sense that there is something not quite right in the Alabaster household is underlined by the actions of the servants, who freeze and turn their faces to the wall when passing family members in the halls or on the stairs, and in Edgar's (vs. William's) treatment of the younger female servants.
William and Eugenia's distance increases through the years, apart from occasional sexual encounters and subsequent pregnancies which eventually produce five children, including two sets of twins. She insists on naming their first boy Edgar, after her brother, which gains no points from William, who never feels close to "all these white children," and he grows closer to Matty, who shares his interest in the natural world. The two embark, unbeknownst to the family, on a creative project together, compiling a book of stories and illustrations about a colony of red ants on the estate.
|William and Matty share many common interests|
The plot of Angels and Insects is very involving, but what makes the film extra special are its visuals. The correlations between the family and the red ant colony add another layer of meaning to the story, which is based on the novella, Morpho Eugenia, by A.S. Byatt. The (Academy Award nominated) costumes by Paul Brown are not just exquisite, but tell another layer of the story on their own. Eugenia, through her dress, is at times a beautiful moth, an absurd bumble bee, and the insect queen that she is destined to become. Ant colonies have one or two fertile females — the queens — and in the Alabaster hive Eugenia takes on this role when her mother dies.
|Queen bee Eugenia|
Angels and Insects may be a Victorian romance, but like a piece of rotting wood that reveals a bunch of creepy crawlies, its beautiful images and people are just on the surface. Kristin Scott Thomas's "plumage" may seem rather dull in comparison to Patsy Kensit's, but her performance and chemistry with noted stage and Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance smolder. It's a weird and wonderful film, and fascinating to watch.
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