Moths to a flame

The Music of Chance, a little-seen film directed by Philip Haas, is an enigma of sorts, but a fascinating one: After a card sharp loses a poker game, he and a friend must pay off their debt by building a stone wall that serves no purpose. You keep expecting the movie to take on some overt significance and explain itself even a little, but it never does. It has no code, no glossary for interpreting its meaning: It's a collection of moods and abstractions, couched in a plot bordering on the surreal. When it ends, you don't walk away thinking about what you just saw, but feeling it.

The Music of Chance showed Haas' gift for handling difficult, almost uncinematic material. His ease in modulating the irregular cadences pulsing through the movie--a sparsely plotted rumination on the changing temperaments of men under the influence of stress--made him a talent to watch. Haas' follow-up, however, the Victorian drama Angels and Insects, is a profound disappointment. It is as metaphoric as The Music of Chance, but its message is less subtly conveyed and comes off as ponderously symbolic.

The story revolves around a country estate that serves as a microcosm of the natural world. William Adamson (Mark Rylance), an impoverished disciple of Charles Darwin, finds employment with the wealthy amateur naturalist, the Rev. Alabaster. Adamson develops a close friendship with Alabaster's spinsterly, educated cousin Matty (Kristen Scott Thomas), but becomes smitten with his beautiful daughter Eugenia (Patsy Kensit), whom he eventually marries. His discomfort at being among the privileged Alabasters, especially Eugenia's snobbish brother Edgar, forms the film's central tension.

Angels and Insects is fatally over-realized. Its structure cannot support the building blocks of its plot for the paradoxical reason that they are both too numerous and too repetitive. By crafting every image and each line of dialogue to move the story single-mindedly to an unavoidable conclusion, Haas fails to play "hide the ball"; Haas delays having Adamson discover the family secrets until it suits him, but the audience has figured out the mystery well before then, so there's no surprise. It doesn't require any great skill simply to postpone a plot point arbitrarily; the adeptness lies in not letting the audience know that's what you're doing.

Haas has a strong sense for the dichotomies in the story, but they are made too forcefully, giving the film an awkward, stilted character. The juxtaposition of uncomfortable-looking schoolgirls in hoop skirts forging through the woods, filled as it is with the simpler aspects of nature, seems heavy-handed and over-reaching. Haas doesn't point out these characters' foibles by distancing us from their situations, but by inadvertently distancing us from the characters themselves. We never become as rapt in their turmoil and contradictory characteristics as we're obviously meant to.

The film's sense of irony, especially Adamson's inability to apply his scientific method to the world immediately around him, diminishes our sympathy for him, probably because the size of the rift between what we observe and what Adamson does--or, more properly, what he does not--is so great. Adamson, for all his good-naturedness, is maddeningly blind to the obvious intrigue going on around him. It's almost comical watching him flutter about the burning flame of the Alabaster clan like one of the self-destructive moths in his collection, but it isn't intended to be, so he seems either mockingly ignorant or pathetically unobservant.

As played by Rylance, Adamson is a wispy and insignificant presence, both in the Alabaster home and the movie. Undistinctive and bland, Adamson appears to be like a mix of indistinguishable mid-19th-century American presidents (Fillmore, Tyler, Polk), all blurred together like ink on a rain-soaked page. With little information about him other than the brief history he tells about his adventure, we have nothing against which to gauge the changes in his personality: Has he always been an insufferably dour, self-pitying romantic, or is this a recent event? You simply don't know or care.

Jeremy Kemp, in the small part of the Rev. Alabaster, gets seized by a vigorous spirit and delivers his too-few lines with conviction, and Thomas portrays Matty with exquisite pain.

The rest of the cast fail to stand out as individuals, and not tokens.
Perhaps The Music of Chance worked because there never was a moment of revelation when all the pieces fit together: After the movie ended, you still didn't have a complete picture, so you luxuriated in the atmosphere.

By contrast, Angels and Insects seems to exist only to showcase the finished product. It bunches together its imagery with a clumsy muscularity at odds with the film's deliberate and mysterious air. Like the Dutch psychological drama The Vanishing, Angels and Insects falls victim to a common plight of overly ambitious moviemaking: The promise far exceeds the fulfillment.

Angels and Insects. The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Mark Rylance, Kristen Scott Thomas, Patsy Kensit. Written by Belinda Haas and Philip Haas. Directed by Philip Haas. Opens February 23.


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