A Darwinian love story whose antagonists are done in by bad genes, Angels and Insects is based on A.S. Byatt’s mannered little novella, Morpho Eugenia. Adapted for the screen by director Philip Haas and his wife, Belinda, the film has a dryly literary tone throughout; it’s more like an elaborate exercise in allusive flourishes than a movie. Though Insects is more clever than it is entertaining, it’s strangely satisfying to see so elegant a period piece so quickly overrun by bugs.
Intent on exposing the bestial underpinnings of civilized society, the film opens with the frenzied ritual dancing of native tribesmen and segues none too subtly to a waltz in a European ballroom. Even here, though, the natural world is busting out all over: Women’s hair and gowns are festooned with flowers, greenery, and, in one case, a large butterfly. The stranger in the crowd is William Adamson (Mark Rylance), a self-effacing explorer and naturalist recently returned from spending several years in the Amazon. Shipwrecked on his return voyage, the destitute scientist is taken into the home of his aristocratic benefactor, Sir Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp). Adamson becomes infatuated with Sir Harald’s vacuous daughter Eugenia (Patsy Kensit), and she surprises everyone by agreeing to marry him despite his working-class background.
The honeymoon is over in record time; though she receives him on their wedding night, thereafter Eugenia keeps her bedroom door locked. Disregarded by his new wife and bullied by her wastrel brother, Adamson spends much of his time in the company of Matty Crompton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a poor relation who works as a companion and governess in the Alabaster household. It is Matty who shares Adamson’s interest in entomology and who suggests that he write a book about the ant colony he keeps under observation.
The film’s symbolic elements fit tightly together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Adamson, for example, has trouble telling angels and insects apart. Though Eugenia is actually costumed like a large bee at one point—in a hideous yellow-and-black-striped gown—her lover fails to take the hint. (Morpho Eugenia is the name of a butterfly specimen that Adamson rescues from his ship and presents to Sir Alabaster; Eugenia herself floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.)
Eugenia’s dealings with the natural world are tainted by her vulgarity: Her only question to Adamson about his adventures is, “Are the natives really naked?” Later, she concocts an organic sex toy, weaving a pair of floral handcuffs for her wedding night. (For such a prim film, Insects has an awful lot of sex in it; it’s almost as if Eugenia’s undisguised carnality is proof of her essential nastiness.) It is obvious that Matty is Adamson’s perfect match: She’s busily sketching ants in a notebook while Eugenia fans herself and eats bonbons.
The social structure at the Alabasters’ country estate is as regimented as that of the ant farm that Adamson keeps under observation. The centerpiece of his book, The Swarming City, tells of the raid of one ant colony on another, and how the losing ants are made servants of the victors. At the same time, the servants in the estate’s long, ant-farmish hallways are trained to turn and face the wall whenever a resident passes by. The unsavory Edgar, who bears more than a passing resemblance to an insect, preys on the female servants without reprimand. Meanwhile, bugs infest the house from below; Adamson passes a servant who is carrying a big bucketful of wriggling beetles down the stairs.
Such a proliferation of Gothic portents can only mean one thing, and it comes as no surprise that there’s a creepy secret at the heart of the film. Suffice it to say that, for a natural scientist, Adamson doesn’t do much careful thinking about reproduction. Unfortunately, by the time Adamson has an inkling of the Alabaster family secret and the repressed Matty comes alive and steps in to claim him as her own, the film is nearly over. Though the film’s near-constant references to the insect world are diverting—He’s mad as a hornet! She’s acting waspish!—they don’t compensate for its near-total lack of narrative momentum. Bugs or no bugs, Insects gets dramatically interesting too late. CP