Angels And Insects Review
When filmmakers of the fifties and sixties felt like commenting on the social politics of their time, they invariably turned to 'the other'. Exactly what form this 'other' took was largely flexible. Over the years, 'the other' took the form of giant men, radioactive mutants, aliens in pods, aliens not in pods, teenagers, women and teenage women. But most popular of all were bugs. Big bugs, smart bugs, small bugs or head-spliced talking bugs, it didn't matter just so long as these bugs were clearly seen as 'the other'. But at least these films were honest and refreshingly free of pretension. If only the same could be said this adaptation of A.S. Byatt's Morpho Eugenio by Philip Haas.
Angels And Insects opens with a ceremony taking place somewhere in the jungles that line the Amazon but cuts within seconds to a dance following a dinner party at a stately home in England. In both locations there is William Adamson (Rylance) who has been taken in by the rich Reverend Alabaster (Kemp) following a shipwreck that leaves Adamson penniless on his return from his work abroad. Having been given an allowance to continue his work with the study of insects, Adamson also begins courting Eugenia (Kensit), the reverend's daughter much to the displeasure of her brother Edgar (Henshall). Watching all of this from a distance is the plain Matty Crompton (Scott Thomas), who is fascinated by the activities both of the insects brought into the house by Adamson as well as the owners of the outwardly pure but inwardly corrupt Alabaster family. As she watches Adamson fall in love and marry Eugenia, then to have a child together, secrets that remained hidden for years are set to burst into the open...
I'll save you the trouble of working any of it out. Despite Philip Haas no doubt believing that he is subtly and cleverly hinting at the murky truths that lie beneath the outward purity of the Alabaster family (note that even their name implies cleanliness), only the most dim-witted members of the audience will fail to see how the plot of the film will develop given that each and every development is handled with all the lightness of a lead anvil. Just in case you miss the film's revelation - although, unless you've slept through it, I fail to see that could happen - Matty Crompton gives it all away during a card game when Adamson hands her a group of cards spelling the word 'insect' only for her to hand him a set but which now spell 'incest'. And there you have it, insects = incest. That's the film.
Now, by rights, Angels And Insects could have been interesting. Incest, if not forced into the plot, is one of those activities that connect sexuality and criminality and is clearly not something that society welcomes. Indeed, given the amount of text that Leviticus gives over to warning the Hebrews about the dangers of unclothing one's aunt, incest has been disapproved of since biblical times at least. Therefore, any drama that examines a brother and sister welcoming the thought of a relationship with one another could well have been pitch-black in its treatment of the subject. Think how Chinatown used incest to portray the corruption within the heart of California. Yet, Angels And Insects, bar the nudity, could have been a late-afternoon made-for-television take on the subject. Even when caught, there appears to be little that either Eugenia and Edgar feel about their actions. Instead of there being some deep love between them, Edgar is portrayed throughout as a young man interested only in mounting anything that still has a pulse but Eugenia displays neither desire nor guilt - nothing, in fact. Angels And Insects is, then, an unsatisfying film, achieving little throughout its running time but an ever increasing sense of frustration within the viewer.
Regarding the performances, they range from anonymous to being outrageously over-the-top. Patsy Kensit has all the charisma of a wet towel in her playing of Eugenia and Mark Rylance is only convincing so long as he doesn't begin to speak. What with the class differences being made not only with his frequent relating of tales from up the Amazon, he is also required to sport such a broad Yorkshire accent that it's a surprise he doesn't first appear in the film wearing a flat cap, a coal-blackened face and comparing Amazon t'Moors. Both, though, pale in comparison to Douglas Henshall's roaring portrayal of Edgar, which he just fails to live up to the instruction to, "Twirls moustache. Sneers." as ought to have been printed in the script. Throughout the film, only Kirsten Scott Thomas emerges with any dignity bringing a subtle sexuality to her playing against type of the mousey nursery teacher.
Angels And Insects has been transferred with its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 intact and looks fine if nothing special. The exterior scenes are better than those within the Alabaster house, with the latter looking not much better than an historical drama, which has been made for television in the last year or so.
In keeping with MGM's use of the original audio tracks, Angels And Insects has been transferred with a stereo soundtrack and sounds fine. Given, though, that the film is as talky as it is, there's little stereo separation but the dialogue is clear, the music doesn't really obscure it and the transfer onto DVD is clean.
Given that Angels And Insects is not one of MGM's A-list titles, it has been released with only the following extra:
Theatrical Trailer (1m48s, 1.85:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Whilst hinting at the subject matter of the film, this trailer does little but portray each character, Matty Crompton excepted, as not only a little eccentric but actually quite insane.
There is little here to really get to grips with and certainly nothing that actually engages the viewer. Whilst the sets look good, the characters that populate them have all the presence of an amateur dramatics society with Patsy Kensit being so poor as to question quite why anyone would ever have considered casting her. Never once does the film get past thinking of itself as an intellectual exercise but even with that, it fails as it's not a clever film and few things are more annoying than something that thinks it's much smarter than it really is. That reason, bar any of the others, is enough to tell you to leave Angels And Insects well alone.