Film Review: Angels and Insects

by Loren Dearborn

Angels and InsectsThe September GBACG Angels and Insects Picnic takes its inspiration from the recent movie of the same name, based on the novella "Morpho Eugenia" by A.S. Byatt (the author of Possession). Angels and Insects tells the story of William Adamson, a naturalist who returns to England penniless after years of research in South America. His belongings and specimens lost in a shipwreck, he returns to his wealthy patron, Harald Alabaster, with a single butterfly specimen: Morpho Eugenia. His benefactor lets him stay at the Alabaster estate tutoring the younger children to earn his keep for another expedition. William quickly falls under the spell of Alabaster's eldest daughter, the mysterious other-worldly Eugenia. He is amazed and delighted when she and the family give their consent to marriage in spite of social differences. But despite some surprisingly passionate nights and the birth of several children, Eugenia remains distant. William finds himself wishing he was back in the Amazon as he fends off insults from Eugenia's brother and realizes that Harald Alabaster's promises of another expedition are not to be realized. Matty Crompton, a poor relation with a quick wit, assists William with the children. The two outsiders grow close as she encourages and assists him with a study of the insects on the estate. And it becomes obvious that Matty knows more than she's telling about the strange family. Eventually, with a little help from Matty, William discovers their shocking secret.

Unlike many books-to-movies, those who have enjoyed Byatt's writing will be happy to discover that director Philip Haas has been quite faithful to the novella. The dialogue and characters appear almost as they did on the page, minus a few long speeches. The film has a strange dream-like quality, that -- unlike other recent historical films -- is tinged with nightmare. Angels and Insects is not your typical Merchant-Ivory production. The microscope is turned on the characters, magnifying the comparison between the "angelic" Victorians and their insect neighbors. High camera angles help with the insect world comparison: as the characters study the insects, we study the characters. It's a visually arresting period piece that is both beautiful and disturbing.

Angels and Insects Of particular note are, of course, the costumes. Producer Belinda Haas reportedly told all the creative departments to take the 1860s as a starting point and to do something distinctive with the period's look, taking it to the extreme. Veteran opera costume designer Paul Brown's costumes definitely are extreme. Using the bright dyes and rounded hoopskirts of the 1860s, he emphasizes the parallel between the characters and the insects. The movie opens with the Alabaster ladies whirling about the ballroom in ballgowns of eye-popping hues, like so many painted butterflies. The women and girls are arrayed in stunning ladybug reds and bumble bee yellows, the little girls' hair braided to appear antennae-like. Servants resemble nothing more than ants as we see them, dressed all in black, scurrying through the dark hallways of the house. Eugenia and Matty both go through a metamorphosis in costume as their positions within the story change. Twenty original gowns, from arrestingly bright dresses with tight bodices to voluminous gowns in washed-out colors, mark Eugenia's gradual change into the "queen" of the household. As Matty Crompton comes out of her cocoon with William, she emerges from her dull gray and black gowns to become one of the more colorful people in the house. Alas, somewhat lost on the big screen, are subtle insect details on many of the costumes, including men's stickpins adorned with dead flies!

A word about the insects while we're at it: those of the faint of heart, beware! An entomologist (otherwise known as a bug scientist) I know said this was one of the best movies he'd ever seen, and I don't think HE meant the costumes! From warring ant colonies to beautiful clouds of butterflies, insects abound. This movie is a visual feast for insect-lovers and costumers alike.

A version of this review appeared in the August 1996 issue of The Costumer's Scribe.
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