Last week the fine actor Mark Rylance finished the Guthrie Theater run of his play Nice Fish, (co-written with the Duluth poet Louis Jenkins). Minneapolis will miss him, but I want to recommend his 1995 film Angels and Insects. I think I saw Mr. Rylance on stage years ago in England, but this excellent movie is the first time I remember seeing him.
The movie is based on A.S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, and she participated in writing the screenplay.
Mark Rylance plays a penniless naturalist, William Adamson. He is just back from years studying animals and insects along the Amazon. Almost all his possessions were lost in a shipwreck on his way home to England, so he counts himself lucky to find a job helping a rich Victorian man catalog his own collections. The Victorians were great ones for collections, of course. Every respectable country home had shelves full of curiosities.
Patsy Kensit plays a somewhat dimwitted and seriously messed-up daughter of the family. Kristin Scott Thomas plays a razor-sharp governess. William Adamson finds himself between them. Of course, complications ensue. Mr. Rylance, as William Adamson, steals every scene with his quiet dignity that clearly covers a passionate nature. He is the second-most intelligent person on the premises, and yet he falls into a trap that an outsider can see from a mile away. As always, love is blind.
What I find fascinating about the movie is the depiction of social classes in a grand country house which is very similar to Downton Abbey. Instead of the formal but friendly relations depicted in the TV series, the servants in Angels and Insects are supposed to either grovel or turn invisible. When a housemaid encounters a family member in a corridor, the housemaid has to immediately turn and face the wall until the family member passes. And William Adamson has to rescue a maid from sexual abuse by a haughty family member. I have to wonder whether the TV series or the movie has the more accurate depiction of master/servant behavior.
Bedroom arrangements are interesting, too. In Downton Abbey, Lady Mary teases her parents for sharing a bedroom. The penniless William Adamson has no such luck. When he marries the daughter of the house, he gets certain privileges, but he always knows his place. He is given a small bachelor-like room adjoining his heiress bride’s bedroom. However, he is only allowed into her grand bedroom when she has her maid unlock the door in between. If he is not welcome, he finds himself standing in his nightshirt before a silent locked door.
The movie was filmed at Arbury Hall in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. The descendants of the founding families still occupy it. It is not part of the National Trust, which in modern times means it has to be run as a money-making enterprise. Like many stately homes, it is now used for corporate events and weddings. The neo-Gothic rooms shown on the estate’s website are grand indeed. Visiting hours are limited, but I’m putting it on my list for my next trip.
The 19th century writer George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) was born on the estate. Her father worked as a manager there. She wrote about the estate as “Cheverel Manor” in her book Scenes of Clerical Life.
For stellar acting and a fascinating look at Victorian life, check out the movie Angels and Insects. And join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe–and the British Isles.