When flying ants fall into the strawberries, cucumber sandwiches, and the silver cream jugs, the Midsummer’s Day picnic is ruined. Everyone runs for cover. Cinematically, Angels & Insects, directed by Philip Haas and his co-screenwriter Belinda Haas is played out as A.S. Byatt intended. Superficially it is another picnic disturbed by ants on the lawn of an English country manor.

Philip Haas. Angels & Insects (1995). Screenplay by Philip Haas and Belinda Haas based on A.S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia in Angels & Insects (1992). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Picnickers are pestered by the falling ants. William (Mark Rylance) tries vainly to help Eugenia (Patsy Kinsit).

Philip Haas. Angels & Insects (1995). William (Mark Rylance) tries vainly to help Eugenia (Patsy Kensit).

Belying the humor,  the dying ants in the cream jugs and teacups are a metaphor contrasting the natural world with the social relationships among the English landed gentry.

Philip Haas. Angels & Insects (1995). Screenplay by Philip Haas and Belinda Haas based on A.S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia (1992). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Byatt compares the ants to Icarus or falling angels meeting their end in pitchers “a creamy suffocation, or by drowning in a steaming cauldron of fragrant Mysore in the midst of our own strawberry picnic.”

Philip Haas. Angels & Insects (1995).  Byatt compares the ants to Icarus or falling angels meeting their end in pitchers “a creamy suffocation, or by drowning in a steaming cauldron of fragrant Mysore in the midst of our own strawberry picnic.”

It presages the ruin of William Adamson and Eugenia Alabaster’s marriage, which is destroyed when he learns that the father of their children is Eugenia’s brother Edgar. William loves her, but Eugenia prefers Edgar: “I know it was bad, but you must understand it didn’t feel bad…” (A reader may take this as either droll humor or horrendous sensationalism, the kind you get in Gothic romances. Having revised the title of the novella Morpho Eugenia, Haas might have more pungently renamed the film Angels & Incest.)

See A.S. Byatt. Morpho Eugenia. In Angels & Insects, Two Novellas. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992; Michelle Weinroth “Morpho Eugenia” and the fictions of Victorian Englishness: A.S. Byatt’s Critique. English Studies in Canada (2005); Alexa Alfer and Michael J. Noble, eds. Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt: Imagining the Real. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001.  

Featured image: Byatt’s ants are Red Wood Ants, Formica rufa. During its mating season, the winged ants mate, swarm, and die, except for the queen and a few worker bees, of course.