“ANGELS AND INSECTS” (1995) Review

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“ANGELS AND INSECTS” (1995) Review

I never thought I would come around to writing this review. I have seen the 1995 movie, “ANGELS AND INSECTS” a good number of times during the past five years. Yet, I never got around to posting a review of this movie, until recently. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. Nor do I have any idea why I had finally decided to write that review.

Based upon A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella called “Morpho Eugenia”, “ANGELS AND INSECTS” tells the story of a poor naturalist named William Adamson, who returns home to Victorian England after having spent years studying the natural wildlife – especially insects – in the Amazon Basin. Despite losing all of his possession during a shipwreck, he manages to befriend a baronet named Sir Harald Alabaster, who is also an amateur insect collector and botanist. The latter hires William to catalog his specimen collection and assist his younger children’s governess the natural sciences.

William eventually falls for Sir Harald’s oldest daughter, Eugenia, who is mourning the suicide of her fiance. Both of them eventually become emotionally involved and decide to marry. Much to William’s surprise, both Sir Harald and Lady Alabaster seems encouraging of the match. The only member of the Alabaster family who is against their upcoming wedding is Sir Harald’s eldest child, the arrogant Edgar. Not only is the latter close to Eugenia, he believes that William is unworthy of his sister’s hand, due to having a working-class background. The marriage between William and Eugenia seemed to be a happily lustful one that produces five children (among them two sets of twins). But Eugenia’s hot and cold control over their sex life, a constantly hostile Edgar, William’s growing friendship to Lady Alabaster’s companion Matilda “Matty” Crompton, and William’s own disenchantment over his role as Sir Harald’s official assistant brings their marriage to a head after several years of marriage.

The film adaptation of Byatt’s novella seemed to be the brainchild of Philip and Belinda Haas. Both worked on the film’s screenplay, while Philip also served as the film’s director and Belinda served as both co-producer (there are three others) and film editor. From my perusal of many period drama blogs, I get the feeling that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is not very popular with many of the genre’s fans. On the other hand, many literary and film critics seemed to have a very high regard for it. Despite my love for the usual romantic costume drama, I must admit that my opinions of the 1995 film falls with the latter group. It is simply too well made and too fascinating for me to overlook.

There were times I could not tell whether “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is some look at the age of Victorian science exploration, the close study of an upper-class 19th century family, or a lurid tale morality. Now that I realize it, the movie is probably an amalgamation of them all, wrapped around this view on Darwinism and breeding – in regard to both the insect world and humans. The topic of breeding seemed to seep into the screenplay in many scenes. Some of them come to mind – Sir Harald and Edgar’s debate on the breeding of horses and other animals, William and Eugenia’s second encounter with moths in the manor’s conservatory, Sir Harald’s despairing rant on his declining usefulness within his own household, the reason behind Edgar’s hostility toward William, and the visual comparisons between the bees and the inhabitants of the Alabaster estate, with Lady Alabaster serving as some metaphor for an aging Queen bee on her last legs. The metaphor of the Queen bee is extended further into Eugenia. Not only does she assume her mother’s role as mistress of the house following the latter’s death; but like Lady Alabaster before her, gives birth to a growing number of blond-haired children. If a person has never seen “ANGELS AND INSECTS” before, he or she could follow both the script and cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman’s shots carefully to detect the clues that hint the cloistered degeneracy that seemed to unconsciously permeate the Alabaster household.

I cannot deny that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is a gorgeous film to behold. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the film’s other producers did an excellent job in creating a visually stunning film with a bold and colorful look. Cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann, along with production designer Jennifer Kernke and Alison Riva’s art direction provided great contributions to the film’s visual style. But in my opinion, Paul Brown’s Academy Award nominated costume designs not only conveyed the film’s colorful visual style more than anything else, but also properly reflected the fashion styles of the early 1860s for women – including the growing penchant for deep, solid colors – as shown below:

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Adding to the movie’s rich atmosphere was Alexander Balanescu’s memorable score. I thought the composer did an excellent job of reflecting both the movie’s elegant setting and its passionate, yet lurid story.

As much as I enjoyed and admired “ANGELS AND INSECTS”, I believe it had its flaws. I understand why Philip Haas had opened the movie with shots of William Adamson socializing with inhabitants of the Amazonian jungle, juxtaposing with the Alabaster ball given in his honor. Is it just me or did Haas use white – probably British – actors to portray Amazonian natives? I hope I am wrong, but I fear otherwise. I also feel that the movie was marred by a slow pacing that nearly crawled to a halt. I cannot help but wonder if Haas felt insecure by the project he and his wife had embarked upon, considering that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” was his second motion picture after many years as a documentarian. Or perhaps he got caught up in his own roots as a documentarian, due to his heavy emphasis on the natural world being studied by William, Matty and the younger Alabaster children. In a way, I have to thank Balanescu’s score for keeping me awake during those scenes that seemed to drag.

I cannot deny that the movie featured some top-notch and subtle performances. Mark Rylance, who has a sterling reputation as a stage actor, gave such a quiet and superb performance that I hope his reputation has extended to film. Kristin Scott-Thomas was equally superb as the Matty Crompton, Lady Alabaster’s very observant companion, who shared William’s interests in natural sciences. I have no idea what reputation Patsy Kensit has as an actress, but I certainly believe she gave an excellent performance as William’s beautiful and aristocratic wife, Eugenia Alabaster, whose hot and cold attitude toward her husband kept him puzzled. Jeremy Kemp gave one of his more complex andentertaining performances as William’s father-in-law, the amateur scientist Sir Harald Alabaster. Douglas Henshall had a difficult job in portraying the bullying Edgar Alabaster, who seemed to view William as both beneath contempt and something of a threat to his views of the world. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Anna Massey, Saskia Wickham, Chris Larkin, Clare Redman and Annette Badlands.

Some fans of period drama might be taken aback by the graphic sexuality featured in the film, along with the story’s lurid topic. And director Philip Haas’ pacing might be a bit hard to accept. But I feel that enduring all of this might be worth the trouble. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the crew and a cast led by Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit did an excellent in re-creating A.S. Byatt’s tale on the screen, and creating a first-rate movie in the end.

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