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Flighty Patterns

A Victorian kink enlivens 'Angels & Insects'

By Allen Barra

MADE FROM THE novella Morpho Eugenia by the currently fashionable A.S. Byatt, Angels & Insects is set in the early 1860s, a time when Englishmen, thanks to Darwin, were coming around to the suspicion that they might not be descended from angels. The central figure, Adamson (Adam's son?; played by Mark Rylance), is a naturalist returned from years in the Amazon. Through his association with an upper-class Victorian family, we view a segment of English society in a sort of cutaway view, as Adamson observes his ant colony.

If all this sounds clinical in summary, it's not in Byatt's novella, which, like all her books (including the cult favorite, Possession), is an almost Nabokov-like assembly of tricks and puzzles. (Like Nabokov, she's delighted by butterflies, which figure prominently in Angels & Insects.)

The young American director Philip Haas doesn't quite have the assurance that Byatt has with this kind of material, but he has substituted some gratuitous sex, which is always appreciated in a Victorian setting. Adamson becomes enamored with Eugenia (one-time rock star Patsy Kensit), the daughter of a nobleman whose scientific artifacts he's been hired to inventory. The love is doomed--think of the Garden of Eden, think of a Nabokovian anagram hidden in the title--but not before the characters have had a lot of creepy fun along the way.

Much of Angels & Insects seems stilted and formal, so you're not sure how you're meant to take the film (or the novella, for that matter). Is it ironic or merely repressed? But the dialogue (much of it taken from the book) is intelligent and layered, so patience is rewarded--Victorian formality, after all, was a screen for all sorts of fascinating undercurrents precisely because of repressions.

Angels & Insects has remarkable casting in the female leads, with Kensit's heavy-panting blonde sex kitten contrasted with Kristin Scott Thomas' brooding, brunette Matty, a precursor of what would soon be called the Modern Woman. Matty comes to absorb Adamson's attention, then ours, until her shadow colors the entire film. Scott Thomas is possessed of almost fashion-model beauty, but here her looks are played down, at least until a remarkable coming-out scene. The role isn't glamorous in any sense, but it's a plum, and Scott Thomas grabs it for all it's worth, building Matty's emotional disclosures to such an intensity that you almost feel embarrassed to be watching something so intimate while at the same time privileged.

It's exciting to watch an actress in this kind of role; it feels like watching Judy Davis or Emma Thompson at the first great performances of their careers. Angels & Insects is an acquired taste, as is Byatt herself, but Scott Thomas will help you acquire it quickly.

Angels & Insects (R; 117 min.), directed by Philip Haas, written by Philip and Belinda Haas, based on the novella by A.S. Byatt, photographed by Bernard Zitzermann and starring Patsy Kensit and Kristin Scott Thomas.

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From the February 8-14, 1996 issue of Metro

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