Angels and Insects (1995) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

This film is a very odd amalgam of several genres. The surface story, seen through the eyes of British novelist A. S. Byatt in the novella Morpho Eugenia, is a blend of Merchant-Ivory consciousness and Southern American Gothic. By that, I mean that the prim Victorian family which is central to the story is hiding dark sexual depravity, and their superior attitude toward others masks some inferiority in their own breeding.

Around 1860, a natural scientist was on his way back from the Amazon back to Britain when his ship was wrecked. He survived, but ten years of work was lost, all of his notebooks and specimens having been consigned to the locker of a certain D. Jones. Virtually penniless, of common birth, and excruciatingly boring, he seems to have few prospects when his sponsor offers to employ him as a tutor to his youngest children. He courts the master's hopelessly beautiful daughter (Patsy Kensit), and surprises even himself when the rich and beautiful woman responds and eventually agrees to marry him, over the loudly proclaimed objections of her brother, who considers this wimpy commoner beneath his sister's dignity.

Or is there something more to it?

Yes, there is. Remember what I said earlier. This family doesn't really represent our picture of a typical Victorian family, but rather resembles something from a Tennessee Williams play, and the secrets will eventually float to the surface. The poor scientist never stops to consider that his bride's previous fiancÚ committed suicide rather than marry her. Maybe a trained scientific thinker might have spotted a red flag right there, but not our lad. He presses onward, like a researcher publishing his book before all his evidence has been gathered.

The unique identifier of this movie is a heavy dose of metaphor and symbolism. You see, our hero is an entomologist, and the movie seems to be absorbed with the parallels between the behaviors of the insect world and human behavior. The absorption with the study of animal behavior and natural selection, and the application of that learning toward the end of modeling human behavior, is entirely appropriate for the time period pictured in the movie. In the generations immediately following Darwin, it was customary for educated people to use the new learning in the natural sciences to speculate on man's nature.

We are no longer quite so fascinated with the wider meaning of the ability of rats and ants to adapt to new families and kill their biological parents, or with the nature of animals that eat their own young. Some people now believe that these facts may provide no significant lessons or models for understanding human behavior. But they still make fascinating metaphors, even in our century. Our hero is attracted to a beautiful butterfly, for example, and does not see the industrious and clever ant who would have made him a far better match. Unfortunately, the dedicated scientist doesn't seem to see the parallels between his studies and his personal life.

The somewhat confusing title highlights the contradictions of Victorian English society as well as the changing nature of knowledge at that time. Whereas our pre-Darwinian world view had usually focused on man as a lesser angel, the development of natural science led to an increasingly predominant view of man as a greater insect.

To make matters even more literary - there is the depressingly obvious word game which he plays with the children's playing cards, in which the author pounds home the anagrammatic connection between the word "insect" (his life's joy) and the word "incest" (his life's misery).

NUDITY REPORT

Female frontal nudity from Patsy Kensit

Male frontal nudity (including an erection) from Douglas Henshall

Frankly, the story plods along like a dray horse, and we can guess the "surprise" and the conclusion after about 15 minutes, thus rendering the labored resolution nearly unnecessary. As for the metaphorical parallels to the insect world, and the other heavy-handed devices (the rich family is named Alabaster, for example), let me quote Dennis Miller (who was speaking of a completely separate subject), "If the symbolism were any more obvious, Andrew Lloyd Webber would be writing music for it".

If I haven't already given enough examples, consider this: in addition to her many butterfly dresses, Kensit also wears one gown which is striped black and yellow like a honeybee. (I don't have any expertise in this area, but it doesn't seem like an accurate period look to me. On the other hand, if it is, I am edified and amused to know that there was a time when black and yellow horizontal stripes were considered both fashionable and flattering. Well, except on John Belushi.)

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen letterboxed, 1.85:1

  • disappointing transfer!

  • no meaningful features

Visually, it is a beautiful film, since the women's costumes and hair styles are compared in nature and purpose to the bright colors of the animal kingdom which cause such species as baboons and birds and butterflies to choose their mates. It is also a highly erotic presentation, with quite a few sex scenes, as well as frontal nudity of both the male and female variety, including a lingering shot of a man with a visible erection.

It's also an intelligent film, but not one that is especially subtle or entertaining, and the first half hour is  tedious and almost completely devoid of energy.

 

Tuna's Thoughts

Insects & Angels (1995) is a dull as dishwater costumer set in Victorian England. The worlds stupidest prominent scientist, an entomologist, is shipwrecked on his way back from 10 years in the Amazon, losing all of his specimens and notes. He is taken in by one of his sponsors, the Alabaster family, and put to work tutoring the children, and organizing the natural science collection. Along the way, he falls in lust with one of the daughters, and ends up marrying her.

Despite the fact that she nearly raped him on their wedding night, the fact that she often locked her door to him, none of their resulting children even remotely resembled him, his brother-in-law was deeply jealous of him from the beginning, and he saw the brother-in-law making free with a young servant girl, it came as a total surprise to him that his wife and her brother had an incestuous relationship. I will admit to having a low tolerance for pretentious dialogue, stuffy costumes, people that fuck with all or most of their clothes on, and endless scenes watching ants crawl around, but this is not a film I will re-watch.  It would probably be decent from a visual point of view with a good wide screen transfer, but the letterbox version just released is very grainy and noisy. Patsy Kensit, as the adulterous sister/wife, does show full frontal, and there is a lengthy sex scene behind gauze curtains.

Scoopy was able to enjoy symbolism, but admitted that it was a rather boring, tedious effort. I can't give this more than a C-.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4,

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars ... US gross, $5 million

 

IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a D+ (Scoopy) to C- (Tuna). A period drama,  with some outstanding positives and some offsetting weaknesses. It will appeal to some, but is not a mass market picture. Scoop's addition: I originally graded it a C, but changed it to a D+ when I realized that must be the right grade based upon our system - it's the kind of movie I normally enjoy, but I didn't much like it. It's somewhere in that C- to D+ range in that it is barely watchable or maybe barely unwatchable even if you like period costume dramas. I'd say D+ is right rather than C- because the DVD transfer is unimpressive.

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