In Victorian England, wealthy patriarch Sir Harald Alabaster invites an impoverished biologist, William Adamson, into his home. There, William tries to continue his work, but is distracted by Alabaster’s seductive daughter, Eugenia. William and Eugenia begin a torrid romance, but as the couple become closer, the young scientist begins to realize that dark, disturbing things are happening behind the closed doors of the Alabaster manor.
Director/co-scripter Philip Haas’ controversial, visually-striking costume drama, an adaptation of A. S. Byatt’s novella titled Morpho Eugenia, was set in Victorian England. The film was the first to be slapped with an NC-17 rating (later released unrated or R) for one brief scene of male genital nudity (with a semi-erection). It occurred when actor Douglas Henshall left the bed of a woman and pulled on his pants with his penis remaining semi-stiff.
It was the tale of lower-class, penniless entomologist-naturalist William Adamson (Mark Rylance) who had returned (after a decade) in 1858 from the Amazon in South America with an invitation to reside with his high-class wealthy patron-benefactor – a gentrified country minister and amateur insect collector named Sir Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp), his fat wife Lady Alabaster (Annette Badland) and his large family of seven girls and one son. Shipwrecked, he was able to bring back the only thing saved — a rare species of butterfly, the Morpho Eugenia. Inevitably, although he was an outsider to the world of privilege, William fell in love with Alabaster’s lovely, other-worldly, and enigmatic eldest daughter Eugenia (Patsy Kensit), drawn to her like a moth to light, although she was entirely in a different social stratus.
William wooed her into marriage at the same time that a younger sister became engaged. The only opposition to the marriage, presumably for class reasons, was from Eugenia’s wastrel, spoiled brother Edgar Alabaster (Douglas Henshall), the estate’s heir (“You are under-bred, sir, and you are no good match for my sister. There is bad blood in you, vulgar blood”). It was unusual that the five quickly-produced offspring of their marriage looked nothing like William.
At the same time that Eugenia was withdrawing her affections, gentlemanly William partnered with his poor but talented artist/writer , a governess to the younger Alabaster children. They worked together on an ant colony research project taking many months – she was much wittier and smarter than William’s wife (causing Eugenia jealousy and dissatisfaction). [Note: There were clear parallels between the insect world and the Alabaster family – Lady Alabaster was the Ant Queen, while her children were her larval offspring.]
The story’s revelation by the conclusion involved the dark, hidden, and shocking sexually-transgressive secret of incest (an anagram of insect!) between deceitful Eugenia and her perverted brother Edgar, who was also promiscuous with young female servants. William left to return to the Amazon, accompanied by Matty.