By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 02, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Woe unto the Jane Austen-besotted moviegoer who is drawn to Angels and Insects (Samuel Goldwyn, unrated) thinking it’s another lively minuet of manners, all deft comments and demure eyelids. Be warned: Observed under the microscope of Belinda and Philip Haas’ fascinating production, life among a family of well-to-do country folk in Victorian England has all the opulence of a Martha Stewart garden party — and all the sexual perversity of a Havelock Ellis case study. If you want light sighs, stick with Waiting to Exhale. This stuff is fabulously, maturely, weirdly dirty.

I hope I’ve gotten your attention, because Angels, faithfully adapted from the novella Morpho Eugenia by popular English writer A.S. Byatt (she wrote the 1990 best-seller Possession: A Romance), is a rare specimen itself: an idiosyncratic piece of filmmaking that does justice to its literary source. Byatt’s study of casual decadence within a highly structured society is set in the household of the Rev. Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp), an amateur insect collector and host to William Adamson (Mark Rylance), a naturalist recently returned to England after years in the jungles of South America. The Alabaster household hums and pulses with frittery human activity. And within that insulated hive, shy Adamson falls in love with pale eldest daughter Eugenia (Patsy Kensit, most recently Mia Farrow in a 1995 TV biopic) and marries her, settling into a leisured life of scholarly bug study. But something is very wrong in this phylum — his wife is so cool to him by day, so hot by night — and the more closely Adamson observes the natural world around him, the more shocking and spectacular the similarities between what he sees crawling on the ground and creepy human secrets.

The elegantly self-contained Kristin Scott Thomas, who pined for Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, stars as a smart, poor Alabaster relative who emerges from her own cocoon; but other than that, the cast will probably be known only to theatergoers and Masterpiece Theatre junkies. No matter: Insects flap and fly; ladies alight for dinner sumptuously draped in gowns garlanded with fake flowers and butterfly wings; men and women couple with animal disregard. The Haases — he directed, she coproduced, and both wrote the screenplay — now have a 2-and-0 track record as gifted visual interpreters of high-quality, dangerous-to-mess-with books; their first feature was a sophisticated adaptation of Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance. Imagine what flights of inspired authenticity they could have conjured had they been the ones to peer into the dark heart of The Scarlet Letter.