'Angels & Insects' is a hot-to-trot fairy tale

March 01, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Under it all, "Angels & Insects" is a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, a moral parable about the foolishness of seeking the pretty blue butterfly instead of the more sensible brown one.

But overall, it's pretty hot to trot.

A dank, smokey Victorian tale of wanting and getting, of rectitude and perversion, the film, which opens today at the Charles, was adapted from a novella by A. S. Byatt, and directed by Philip Haas from a script by himself and his wife Belinda.

An extended drama that wittily doubles as a cross-species essay in comparative anthropology/entomology, it compares refined English Victorian society to insect society over and over again, in many ways. It even goes so far as to show a wealthy family as a parody of an ant colony, with a fat white queen and a dying, irrelevant king, ambitious soldiers, dreary slave drones. That part is fun.

But the real fun is in the complicated sexual mis-wirings in the Alabaster family manse. These refined chaps and lasses make Faulkner's Snopes Brothers look like Anglican clergy!

Our entry into the strange world of the Alabasters is via the arrival of a failed explorer and entomologist named William Adamson, played by star-waiting-to-happen Mark Rylance. Adamson spent 10 years in the Amazon, collecting specimens and data, only to lose them in a shipwreck. Now he's found a patron in the wealthy Sir Harold Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp), who lets him move in.

But all is not well among the Alabasters.

Blond Eugenia (Patsy Kensit), strangely beautiful and damned, flits about in blue brocade, putting out signals of availability and neurosis at the same time.

Then there's her handsome moron of a brother, the excessively idiotic Edgar, a great creation. This guy is such a dope he'd be funny, if he weren't so mean-spirited and nasty (Douglas Henshall, another star-in-waiting). His best scene: where he denounces the idea of evolution, because anybody can see a draught horse doesn't look anything like an Arabian!

"Edgar, THINK!" bellows his impatient father, a man both captivated and depressed by the coming of Darwinian thought. He and he alone sees the moral implications of Darwinism and knows that all eventually will crumble -- beginning, alas, with him and his rights as lord and master.

But soon enough, William has married Eugenia and, boy, is he surprised on the wedding night when she comes on like the sultan's No. 1 harem girl, full of tricks this prim little Victorian is incapable of imagining. She sure didn't learn them in Miss Dawson's Finishing School, and the movie offers a lot of glossy soft-core thrashing.

We learn much sooner than poor William that the poor relative Matty Crompton (Kristin Scott Thomas) is almost perfect for him: Among other things, she loves bugs. They collaborate on a book about the social life of ants, which gives him far more satisfaction than any fun in the hay with his nominal wife.

The best thing going in "Angels & Insects" is the heady excitement of ideas being worked out in drama. We palpably feel William's belief in a rational, explainable universe coming asunder in the face of what he learns of the irrational in human nature, but we also see how it can be repaired again, by more rationality.

For all its modernist airs and decadence, "Angels & Insects" is fundamentally a Victorian piece: It believes that progress -- even sexual and emotional -- is our most important product.

'Angels & Insects'

Starring Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas

Directed by Philip Haas

Released by Samuel Goldwyn

Unrated (sexual material and nudity)

***

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