After ten years on the Amazon and surviving a shipwreck in which most of his work is lost, naturalist William Adamson (Mark Rylance), now lacking a home and means of his own, is taken in by his benefactor, Sir Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp), who hires William to assist him with the writing of a book, as well as to tutor the younger of the children in residence on his estate. It's good fortune for William, who finds satisfaction in his work, as well as in making the acquaintance of one of Sir Harald's daughters, Eugenia (Patsy Kensit), with whom he quickly becomes enamored.
Eugenia, however, is a rather fragile flower, struggling with the inner demons of a dark secret born of unspeakable tragedy. A member of the family intimates to William the nature of Eugenia's distress, but though he then understands, he is prevented by class distinction and bloodline from assuaging her grief or pursuing her hand. He can offer only friendship; but as he soon discovers, where matters of the heart are concerned, friendship alone is a cold mistress. And despite his best efforts, the shadows that plague Eugenia's soul remain. William, though, is determined to break through her darkness and bring her into the light. But some secrets are better left buried, and before it's over, William may discover more than he bargained for.
Beautifully filmed and acted, working from a screenplay co-written by Philip Haas and Belinda Haas (adapted from the novel, `Morpho Eugenia,' by A.S. Byatt), director Haas sets a deliberate pace, which along with the stunning cinematography of Bernard Zitzermann, gives the film a riveting, hypnotic effect. The scenes explode in vivid bursts of color that are so aesthetically appealing to the eye, and which create such a pronounced atmosphere and tone, that the viewer is eased into the drama and summarily swept away by the story. Initially, Haas plays down the enigmatic nature of the tale, but gradually exposes what lies beneath, shading the terms of his revelations so very subtly and effectively. The keen eye will detect hints along the way, but Haas is so discriminating in his presentation that the real impact of the film is decidedly reserved for the denouement, which is extremely effective. Haas understands the emotional terrain with which he is dealing, and it shows-- both in the innate perspectives of human nature which he so readily conveys, as well as in the performances he obtains from his actors.
As Adamson, Mark Rylance lends a quiet, personable charm that works perfectly for his portrayal of this man who has seen, perhaps, too much of the world, and as a result, by choice takes that which is pleasing to him at face value. It's an honest depiction of a just man, who views the world about him objectively and without judgment, which in the end, of course, is to his detriment. It is the quiet strength of Rylance's performance, however, that makes it so effective and emotionally involving.
Patsy Kensit does an admirable job of capturing the angst of Eugenia, this young woman who lives in a seemingly perpetual state of inner-turmoil. She creates a character that is sympathetic, but who evokes little empathy, which is quite in keeping with who Eugenia really is, the woman hiding behind the same mask that guards her unbearable secret. And it's effective work, too, inasmuch as she presents Eugenia as fragile, but not too vulnerable, which goes far in establishing the true nature of her character.
It is Kristen Scott Thomas, however, who gives the most memorable performance of all, as Matty Crompton, a member of Sir Harald's extended family. Scott Thomas, so extraordinary in such films as `The English Patient' and `Random Hearts,' has never been better than she is here. Her portrayal of Matty is entirely honest, presented in terms that are so effectively subtle and understated, and which align so perfectly with the discerning approach Haas takes, that she successfully elicits the empathy of the viewer. This is, without question, an Oscar-worthy performance, coincidentally coming in the same year that Scott Thomas was nominated for Best Actress for her work in `The English Patient.' It goes without saying that it was an incredible, memorable year for this incredible actor.
The supporting cast includes Douglas Henshall (in an extremely noteworthy performance as Eugenia's brother, Edgar), Annette Badland (Lady Alabaster), Chris Larkin (Robin), Anna Massey (Mrs. Mead), Saskia Wickham (Rowena), Clare Redman (Amy) and Paul Ready (Tom). The metaphor of the ant colony makes a thought provoking statement about the potential for dysfunction among the higher, more `intelligent' life forms in the absence of moral discipline and the responsibility carried by Man as the most highly evolved of all creatures. Engaging entertainment and much more, `Angels and Insects' is a plea for humanity to be the best that we can possibly be. And it's the magic of the movies. 9/10.