Have Messrs. Ivory and Merchant shown you into one too many drawing rooms? Just about had it with the Jane Austen craze? Up to here with Victorian-class warfare? How about the eternal feud between manners and desire? That's okay. A lot of people feel the same way. But before you chuck the whole Brit-lit-as-film thing in the ashcan and line up to see Travolta hijack those nukes, please give Angels & Insects a long look. Unless you're not interested in a mysterious, intelligent, highly literate gem that also has the sizzle of three Sharon Stone movies.
In his boldest mood, D.H. Lawrence might have written something like this drama about the dark lusts lurking inside seemingly decorous Victorian aristocrats. But the novelist who rules that territory these days is A.S. Byatt, whose original and disturbing examinations of the period have made her one of Britain's most important new voices. Adapted for the screen by the husband-and-wife team of Belinda and Philip Haas and directed by the latter, the film comes from Byatt's 1992 novella Morpho Eugenia, which follows a shipwrecked naturalist, a man of few means, into the country mansion of the well-heeled Alabaster family in 1858. Once inside he discovers a social structure far more complex than he envisioned and extremes of human behavior he never imagined. The scientist in him is stirred, the man even more.
This is much stronger stuff than Merchant-Ivory's brand of polite literary reproduction--largely because Byatt's subject matter is so much more volatile. In the process of unraveling a vivid erotic mystery, the filmmakers also paint a detailed and frequently merciless portrait of a moment in social history--a moment when intellect and performance were beginning to supplant privilege in the pecking order; when Charles Darwin was turning the assumptions of nineteenth-century science and the tenets of Christian faith upside down; when women in domestic bondage were starting to make their voices heard, if only faintly. Through it all, the Haases give equal time to the civilized and savage instincts in humankind, and they bring the whole thing off without ever lapsing into obscurity. Even the big, insistent metaphor at the heart of the film--society is an ant farm, an ant farm is a society--is so cunningly and keenly observed that it enriches every moment.
When his ship wrecks on the voyage back to England from wild South America, the scientist William Adamson (Mark Rylance) loses all his specimens--and most of his prospects. Penniless, he is taken in by the wealthy scientific dabbler Sir Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp), and there we have irony number one. When Adamson falls in love with one of Sir Harald's daughters, the golden and seemingly unattainable Eugenia (Patsy Kensit), we double up on ironies. And when, to his amazement, he actually is allowed to marry into the family in a double wedding of Alabaster sisters, we have the third irony. And that's plenty to work with as the intriguing tangle of the Alabasters unknots.
Meanwhile, William is subjected to the odious Edgar Alabaster (Douglas Henshall), his new brother-in-law. A snob and a lout, Edgar seems to be absorbed only in fox hunting and brandy. He ridicules William's low breeding and generally resists all change with every muscle in his head. But in this elaborate fable on natural selection and the varieties of passion, a new species is developing nonetheless: Gentle, low-born William, who's full of inventive ideas, is part of the process, and so is Matty Crompton (Kristin Scott Thomas), a neglected poor relative of the Alabasters who's dressed in plain insect gray but whose sumptuous illustrations of the evolving ant farm on the estate grounds suggest the dawn of a new age.
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Aside from William and Eugenia's spirited couplings--which rival the highlights from Last Tango in Paris--one of the most striking moments in Angels & Insects is the vision of old Lady Alabaster (Annette Badland), plump and pale as dough, reclined in a gilt armchair to receive her visitors. In this one image director Haas (The Music of Chance) and cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann may have summarized their entire film: Darwin is banging on the gates and Western civilization is careening into the future, but the Lady Alabasters of the world remain blissfully unaware of it all and steadfastly immobile.
So, then, is the mixed-class marriage of William and Eugenia also a harbinger? Therein lies the pivotal mystery, which Haas plays out like an old master. And not even that old rogue Lawrence, I suspect, could have fashioned a solution as apt or startling as Byatt's. The principals in this splendid surprise are not exactly household names--Rylance appeared in Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books and Kensit, a former child star, was the critically acclaimed lead in Don Boyd's Twenty-one--but there's nothing to fault. Rylance's quiet, sparely gestured portrait of an intelligent young man at the mercy of unfathomable forces is just right, and Kensit's abrupt veers from frank carnality to mysterious shell-shock perfectly suit life among the Alabasters.
In sum: Here's a fluent adaptation of a novella with real edge and substance.
Angels & Insects. Screenplay by Belinda and Philip Haas, from the novella Morpho Eugenia, by A.S. Byatt. Directed by Philip Haas. With Mark Rylance, Patsy Kensit, Kristin Scott Thomas and Douglas Henshall.