William Adamson (Mark Rylance), a brilliant naturalist, has recently returned to Victorian England, staying with the family of his wealthy benefactor, Sir Harold Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp). He is penniless after losing all of his possessions in a shipwreck returning from a years-long expedition to the Amazon. Now dependent upon the hospitality of his patron, William is employed to catalog Sir Harold's specimen collection and teach his younger children the natural sciences, assisting their governess, the unassuming Matty Crompton (Kristin Scott Thomas).
William quickly becomes enamoured with Sir Harold's eldest daughter, Eugenia (Patsy Kensit). Eugenia is softly spoken, anxious, and still mourning the recent death of her fiancé. Despite his impoverished circumstances, Eugenia proves receptive to his advances and accepts his proposal of marriage. Although Sir Harold grants his approval, Eugenia's snobbish and spoilt brother Edgar (Douglas Henshall) takes an intense dislike to William because of his humble origins.
Soon after the marriage, Eugenia informs William that she is pregnant. She insists on naming the boy 'Edgar' after her brother, frustrating William. Eugenia's behaviour alternates between coldness towards William, locking him out of her room at night, and moments of intense sexual passion. Over time the couple has four more children, although William never warms to them. He instead spends much of his time with the Alabaster children and Matty, observing the activity of an ant colony in the forest. Returning via the stables from an excursion, William discover his brother in law Edgar taking advantage of a very young servant girl. Edgar tells William that the girl wanted it, but it is clear the girl is terrified of Edgar. William forms a strong bond with Matty Crompton, who encourages his scientific activities and displays a strong intelligence of her own. They collaborate on a book about the colony, which is successfully published in London.
One day, during a hunting excursion, William is summoned back to the house by a servant boy who claims that Eugenia wishes to speak to him. He walks into the bedroom, surprising Eugenia and Edgar while they are engaging in incestuous sex. Eugenia then confesses that she and Edgar had been having sex since they were children and that her fiancé committed suicide after discovering this. Eugenia tells William that when it started she was too young to properly understand and kept it secret, but after she became engaged and saw herself through the eyes of her fiancé she felt guilty. In tears, Eugenia explains that she tried to stop, but that Edgar's will was too strong for her. William realises that he has been used by Edgar to continue practicing incest and that all of the children (who bear no resemblance to him) are Edgar's.
Matty reveals her knowledge of the affair to William during a Scrabble-like game by discreetly moving around letter tiles that spell INSECT to INCEST. Meeting in her attic room, she explains that the servants were also aware and it was through their instigation that the secret was exposed to William. Expressing frustration at her life and her dependency on the Alabasters, Matty reveals that she has published her own book on the insects and has bought two tickets for passage aboard a ship bound for the Amazon. William is initially reluctant for them both to go; despite his attraction to Matty, he does not feel that the rain forest is a suitable place for a woman. After she assures him of her strength, and reveals that she loves him, William acquiesces to her plan.
Before leaving, William meets with Eugenia one last time and tells her he intends never to return. He also promises to keep her secret, for fear of injuring her ailing father with the news, and hopes she may find a way to live with her grief. The movie ends with William and Matty departing in a coach for Liverpool, eager to begin their new adventure and leave the past behind.Mark Rylance as William Adamson
Kristin Scott Thomas as Matty Crompton
Patsy Kensit as Eugenia Alabaster Adamson
Jeremy Kemp as Sir Harald Alabaster
Douglas Henshall as Edgar Alabaster
Annette Badland as Lady Alabaster
Chris Larkin as Robin
Anna Massey as Miss Mead
Saskia Wickham as Rowena Alabaster
Lindsay Thomas as Lady Alabaster's Maid
Michelle Sylvester as Margaret Alabaster
Clare Lovell as Elaine Alabaster
Jenny Lovell as Edith Alabaster
Oona Haas as Alice Alabaster
Angus Hodder as Guy Alabaster
John Veasey as Arthur
The film was made on location at Arbury Hall in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, the home of the 3rd Viscount Daventry. The costumes worn by Kensit and the other actresses were designed in bright colors and bold patterns to evoke the appearance of insects, which would earn the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design. In the marriage proposal scene, Patsy Kensit's gown was treated with female sex hormones to attract the moths to her. 6,000 ants were brought in initially for the forest colony scenes, but they walked off before filming. Another 6,000 were brought in as a replacement, only for the original 6,000 to return.
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, 1995 and the London Film Festival on November 5th. It received a limited release in the USA on January 26th, 1996. Critical reception was very strong, with the performances and production values being particularly praised. Janet Maslin claimed the film had "...formidable intensity and haunting beauty" and Roger Ebert awarded it 3.5 Stars. Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle thought that Haas directed the film "...with elegance and control, and seasons the sexier, more melodramatic elements of his tale with subtle, slightly mocking irony."
Time Out concluded that Angels and Insects "...is not your average period drama...the costumes, design, music and camerawork steer clear of naturalism, highlighting both the modernity of the approach and the notions of humans as creatures to be observed dispassionately. Despite some uneven pacing and variability in performance, this is a work of clarity, ambition and intelligence."
In the USA the film was released on VHS on February 21st, 2000, on DVD March 19th 2002. In the UK the film was released on 3rd February 2003 on both DVD and VHS.Nominated - Academy Award (1997) for Best Costume Design (Paul Brown)
Nominated - Cannes Film Festival (1995) for the Golden Palm for Best Director (Philip Haas)
Won - Evening Standard British Film Award (1996) for Best Actress (Kristin Scott Thomas)
Won - National Board of Review (1996) Special Recognition for Excellence in Filmmaking