Out of the Cocoon

Belinda and Philip Haas's (she produced; he directed; they both wrote the screenplay) slow but absorbing production of Angels & Insects reminded me of Peter Greenaway's 1982 The Draughtsman's Contract. Both films are English period pieces, although Greenaway's film is set in the Seventeenth Century, while the Haases' takes place in the Nineteenth. But more to the point, the two pictures punctuate long stretches of decorous (on the surface, anyway) upper-crust English country life with a few truly randy moments of graphic, passionate sex -- a cloak of genteel aristocracy conceals a lascivious soul.

In The Draughtsman's Contract an arrogant young artist arrives at a sumptuous estate, exchanges drawings for lodging and sexual favors, and unwittingly becomes a pawn in a wicked game of double cross and scandal. The artist's drawings clue the audience in to the behind-the-scenes machinations of the participants. In Angels & Insects a humble young naturalist arrives at a sumptuous estate, exchanges his expertise for lodging and a shot at romance and upward mobility, and unwittingly becomes a pawn in a wicked game of double cross and scandal. Insect behavior clues the audience in to the behind-the-scenes machinations of the participants.

The Haases (who previously jointly adapted Paul Auster's novel The Music of Chance for the screen) allow their cinematic treatment of A.S. Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia (one of two that compose her book Angels & Insects) to evolve so subtly and gradually that viewers with short attention spans may grow impatient. Mild-mannered naturalist William Adamson (Mark Rylance) has recently returned to England after a few years of slogging through the Amazon rain forest in search of rare bugs. The alluring golden-tressed beauty Eugenia Alabaster (Patsy Kensit) -- eldest daughter of Adamson's benefactor, the Reverend Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp) -- catches the naturalist's eye like no exotic arthropod ever had.

Reverend Alabaster invites Adamson to stay at the sprawling family mansion, where he can catalogue and organize the reverend's massive warehoused collection of mounted bugs, lizards, and assorted other creepy crawlies. No sooner has the penniless naturalist accepted the reverend's offer than Edgar Alabaster (Douglas Henshall) -- Eugenia's snobbish, dimwitted, hot-tempered brother -- voices his disapproval and accuses Adamson of opportunism. But Edgar ain't seen nothin' yet. Adamson's gentle wooing wins Eugenia over, and soon the naturalist metamorphoses from the reverend's houseguest into Eugenia's groom.

And that's when the real fun begins. William and Eugenia consummate their marriage in a strikingly hot and explicit bedroom scene made all the more joltingly and refreshingly erotic by the slow dance of proper courtship and repressed desire that led up to it. Supposed virgin Eugenia appears to have more than a passing familiarity with the art of lovemaking, but William doesn't notice (or at least he doesn't seem to mind). After all, he was chasing down bugs in the jungles of South America for a long, long time.

Angels & Insects picks up steam when it, um, picks up steam. But you have to look past the elegant surroundings, the rigid social structure, and the stiff manners to get to the good stuff. After their first night of lovemaking, Eugenia bars William from her bedroom for months -- nine of them, to be exact -- after which she gives birth to twins. The naturalist learns the hard way that when it comes to bizarre mating rituals, six-legged creatures have nothing on their bipedal counterparts.

Mark Rylance is both convincing and ingratiating as the disarmingly deferential William Adamson. The actor imbues the plain naturalist with a poise that suggests a reserve of quiet strength beneath the humble exterior. That inner strength serves him well in deflecting Edgar's constant derision. Kristin Scott Thomas is outstanding as an exceedingly bright but bottled-up relative of the Alabasters who, under the warm light of Adamson's gaze, emerges from her cocoon. Her subtle transformation from frumpy, frustrated closet intellectual into budding author and illustrator is a joy to behold.

A naturalist such as Adamson would have been proud of the way the Haases meticulously detail their characters' actions, hatching dozens of insect metaphors along the way. And like dedicated scientists, the filmmakers resist the urge to rush or to jazz up their work to make it more palatable to the masses. Angels & Insects spends a long time in the pupal stage; it develops slowly, and the temptation is to assume there's really nothing going on. But stick it out. Once the seemingly dormant chrysalis breaks open, Angels & Insects spreads beguilingly colored wings and flutters skyward.

Angels & Insects
Written by Belinda and Philip Haas; directed by Philip Haas; with Mark Rylance, Patsy Kensit, Jeremy Kemp, Douglas Henshall, and Kristin Scott Thomas.

 
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