Angels And Insects

on January 26, 1996 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
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From Playhouse International Pictures (the revamped PBS supplier American Playhouse) comes this startling and penetrating study of Victorian England, perhaps the best take yet on that era and its intertwining with sexual repression and ignorance. An excellent Mark Rylance ("Institute Benjamenta") plays William Anderson, a poor, boyish naturalist whose career setbacks bring him under the roof of the wealthy Alabaster family. He falls in love with the icily beautiful Eugenia ("Twenty-One's" Patsy Kensit), marries her and starts a family, all the while continuing his studies in the arcana of insects, aided by an Alabaster family relative ("Four Weddings and a Funeral's" Kristin Scott Thomas) who shares his interest. But connubial bliss isn't to be Adamson's lot in life; a tragic revelation tears all asunder.
Adapting A.S. Byatt's novel, "Morpho Eugenia," with wife Belinda Haas, director Philip Haas ("The Music of Chance") displays a strong command of the material, guiding "Angels and Insects" smoothly and arriving at a conclusion resonant and disturbing in equal measure. The usual high British standards of acting and set design are evident, but this isn't "Masterpiece Theatre"; the feelings are too nasty and raw.
"Angels and Insects" also goes further than the usual costume epic. It's telling in its observations on Victorian dining habits, class structures and social attitudes, but that age's sexual and emotional undercurrents -- and their contrast with the logical and emotionless world of insect life -- are the film's main concerns. Haas offers explicit sex with an impact heightened by the genuine eroticism and desperation William and Eugenia bring to the act; rarely has passion and need been so realistically brought to the screen. Compared to the usual exploitative Hollywood view of the subject, "Angels and Insects" is truly an adult and subversive piece of work. Starring Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas and Patsy Kensit. Directed by Philip Haas. Written by Philip Haas and Belinda Haas. Produced by Joyce Herlihy and Belinda Haas. A Goldwyn release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 117 min.
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