Angels and Insects

Synopsis: Taken in by a wealthy family after a failed expedition to the Amazon, biologist William Adamson Rylance) wins the hand of his benefactor’s daughter (Kensit) and believes his dreams of fame and fortune may finally come true. But a servant (Thomas) has a secret knowledge about his new family, and his visions of grandeur tarnish in light of an erotic decadence and illicit passions beyond his darkest fears.


Angels and Insects 8.25

eyelights: its plot. its setting. its sexiness. its message. its twist.
eyesores: its garish dresses.

“Whom can I tell that I should not destroy in the telling.”

Nature or Nurture? This has long been debated and it remains a contentious topic even today. Personally, I’ve long believed that nature provides us with minimal and maximal potential and that we nurture our potential from that point on.

I believe that nurture is more significant in our development. No matter how tremendous your capacity is, if you sit on your laurels, you’ll end up being outdone by lesser but more focused individuals, by the little trains that could.

Seriously, there was a time when it was a “known fact” that women were terrible at math, science and sports; they weren’t even able to get an education. Look at women now, eclipsing men in so many fields, beginning in grade school.

The same goes with some races, where we once believed as “fact” that some were less intelligent, less sophisticated, only good for some activities and not others. As our populations intermingle, these “truisms” are mercifully being dispelled.

When given similar opportunities, chances at maximizing our potential, the lines between gender and races blur.

Philip Haas’s 1995 motion picture ‘Angels and Insects’, which is based on A.S. Byatt’s short story “Morpho Eugenia”, tells the story of William Adamson, a naturalist, eking out a living by sorting Sir Alabaster’s rare insects collection.

Having recently lost all of his belongings (including all of the research from his many years exploring the Amazon) in a shipwreck, he stays in his patron’s country mansion. William welcomes this opportunity to get back on his feet.

Unfortunately, he’s constantly subject to the contempt of Sir Alabaster’s son, Edgar, who is a classist. But William ignores his condescension and taunts by focusing on Eugenia Alabaster, Sir Alabaster’s beautiful but melancholy daughter.

Whom he proceeds to marry.

It’s only then that he begins to realize that something’s amiss with the Alabasters; despite the head of the family’s attempts at bridging the gap, he remains an outsider. Even in Eugenia’s bed. William will soon discover the family secret.

‘Angels and Insect’ is a picture that I stumbled upon many years ago, when my local library had a massive collection of laserdiscs. I bought a cheap player because it meant that I would be able to rent as many movies as wanted for free.

I consumed an unhealthy amount of motion pictures in those early days, so I eventually got through all of the more popular titles. ‘Angels and Insects’ was one of those titles that I picked up because I had started exploring a little bit more.

It’s a beautiful picture, set in Victorian England, and filmed on location at Arbury Hall. The architecture, the furnishings, the grounds and the costumes, are all incredible. Even the main cast is attractive, fitting nicely in this setting.

But what makes the picture interesting are the discussions that William has with his benefactors at various times, like dinner, about morality, the differences between the sexes in the insect worlds, Darwinism, …etc. It’s thought-provoking.

William tends to be more progressive and he finds an ally in Matty, the Alabaster children’s governess, who equals William’s knowledge of insects. She longs for a day when socialism will replace the class system, but despairs that it won’t.

The soft tension that percolates between the wealthy Alabasters and their hired help underlies everything in the picture. It’s absolutely stunning to watch the staff becoming still and averting their eyes when their masters pass them by.

William and Matty are afforded a little bit more latitude, though they are not considered peers.

And yet William constantly proves himself greater than they; he is more knowledgeable, more proper, and more dignified, earning the respect of some of Edgar’s friends. And Matty is much more educated and unassuming than any of them.

Besides Edgar, the most offensive of them all is the porcine Lady Alabaster, a sluggish woman who sits around eating while being tended to by staff. She’s a judgemental, entitled woman so weak that she passes out at the slightest stress.


It’s hard not to feel resentful of the Alabasters’ feelings of superiority, content to breed like rabbits but being unable to tend to their children – even for breastfeeding. The staff is good enough to raise their kids, yet earns no respect.

So gross.

Now, if this picture sounds all too cerebral, it really isn’t. It just brings to the fore questions of class, of genetics vs. education, and does so in many ways. It is, in fact, also a lovely, pretty drama – but one with a dark heart and minor twist.

It’s well worth seeing. The performances by Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas and Patsy Kensit cement the picture and it’s directed with a sure hand by Haas – who, despite being nominated for awards, has made surprisingly few films since.

If there’s one thing I’d have to criticize about the picture, it’s Haas’ decision to make some of the beautiful dresses extremely vibrant. Though it’s entirely appropriate given it’s analogous to the insect world, it was jarring and discrepant.

Otherwise, ‘Angels and Insects’ is a near-perfect period piece. It’s unfortunate that it’s mostly been forgotten since. It’s certainly as beautiful and poignant, if not as masterful, as films like ‘The Piano‘ and ‘The Remains of the Day‘.

Perhaps its secrets were best left in the shadows?

Story: 8.5
Acting: 8.0
Production: 8.0

Sexiness: 3.5
Nudity: 2.5
Explicitness: 5.0

Date of viewing: August 15, 2017

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