Angels and Insects (1996) Paul Hass Version of Byatt’s Novella Starring Mark Rylance and Patsy Kensit

Based on A. S. Byatt’s novella “Morpho Eugenia,” Paul Hass’s “Angels and Insects” is an ambitious but flawed picture that’s still worth watching.

Haas has adapted the book, which is set in Victorian society era, with his wife and frequent collaborator, Belinda. The story centers on William Adamson (Mark Rylance), a research naturalist who meets and marry Eugenia (Patsy Kensit) at the estate of his patron, a wealthy insect collector.

A spoiled rich girl, Eugenia, the patron’s daughter, keeps distance from him. The marriage is on the rocks from the start for reasons (some shocking) that become clearer later. The more committed Adamson is to his research, the more distant Eugenia gets, eventually looking for sexual escapades outside their marriage, in the context of a rigid mores.

The drama gets a much-needed shot of energy and suspense when Kristin Scott Thomas, almost unrecognizable due to severe make-up and clothes, enters into the scene. A family relation, Thomas immediately recognizes the value of Adamson’s research and her assistance become both professional and personal.

Haas (“The Music of Chance”) is a cerebral director who makes rather dry, intelligent films of ideas that seldom connect emotionally with the audience. That said, due to good acting, “Angels and Insects” is one of his better efforts, which might explain why distributor Samuel Goldwyn was able to make $3.4 million (a nice record for a small indie) in its theatrical release.

Initially, the film was made for PBS’ American Playhouse, but critical response plus explicit sexuality (and nudity) made “Angels and Insects” more suitable for the big-screen.

The film received an Oscar nomination for Costume Design, by Paul Brown, in a year in which all the nominees in that category were period pieces, such as “Emma,” “Hamlet,” and “The Portrait of a Lady.” The winner was Ann Roth for Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient, which swept most of the Oscars.