WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Benjamin Hood’s trysts with his neighbour’s wife Janey form part of a purely businesslike affair, an aside to life with his increasingly troubled wife Elena and their precocious daughter Wendy. Janey’s sons Mikey and Sandy are both in love with the girl but the parents are too busy to notice what the children are up to, their negligence culminating in tragedy.
The phrase ‘period drama’ instantly conjures images of horse-drawn carriages, noisy balls and troubled bosoms heaving under tight bodices, as in Pride and Prejudice or Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. Although this period drama, based on a Rick Moody novel, only takes us back as far as the Connecticut suburbia of 1973, the landscape is as different and alien as if it had been written by Austen in the 1800s.
Benjamin Hood (Kevin Kline) lives in the town of New Canaan with his wife Elena (Joan Allen) and adolescent daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci), who much to Ben’s annoyance rails constantly against Nixon’s TV pronouncements. His main distraction, however, lies next door with the sensuous Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver); and though there is little passion to their affair, it gives Janey something to do whilst her husband Jim (Jamey Sheridan) is away.
She’s certainly not much bothered with looking after her sons Mikey (Elijah Wood), with whom Wendy is experimenting, or Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), himself infatuated with the girl next door: whenever, that is, he’s not blowing up his toys. Meanwhile, Wendy’s older brother and Fantastic Four fan Paul (Tobey Maguire) also has sex on his mind, though his pursuit of lovely fellow student Libbets (Katie Holmes) seems destined to fail as his friend Francis (David Krumholtz), more experienced and suave with the ladies, has introduced himself first.
Feeling the chill descend in their marriage, Elena looks for ways to recapture the excitement of her youth, but neither the local new-age Reverend, cycling nor shoplifting give her the feeling she desires. When Ben’s affair is all but confirmed to her, she insists that they both go to a swinging ‘key party’ hosted by friends; but the night ends in humiliation for both adults, while their offspring, left to themselves, go out into the vicious and dangerous ice storm that has descended over the county.
I’ve left the description of the plot as spoiler-free as possible since The Ice Storm is really a film that should not be spoilt before a first watch. What I will say is that for a film that is at its heart a small story about two neighbouring families, and covering a very small time period – the second half of the film is given over to the night of the storm – it covers an enormous amount of thematic ground.
Firstly, there is the political backdrop of a country uneasy with itself and its leader; but more pressingly there is the social backdrop of an affluent middle class that doesn’t know what to do with itself. The free love of the 60s has been formalised into the joyless ceremony of the key party, and the children can hardly be blamed for their experimentation since the adults provide such poor examples (there is a very awkward, and very funny, scene where Benjamin tries to give his son guidance in the etiquette of self-abuse).
The Ice Storm gives us both the parents’ view of their pubescent children and the children’s view of the dysfunctional parents, whilst also highlighting in every single adult character the loneliness and unhappiness of their supposed sexual ‘freedom’ (Elena and Jim’s abortive fumblings are particularly uncomfortable to watch).
But this is telling only half the story, for The Ice Storm is simply a great film. The immaculate recreation of 70s life – the hair, the clothes, the houseware, the waterbed – is spot-on, and helps to generate an utterly convincing mood, enhanced by Lee’s unfussy direction which sparingly uses images of ice-covered trees to reflect the frozen emotions of the families, culminating in the tragic denouement which is at once poetic, haunting and memorable.
What’s more, Lee coaxes unbelievably good performances from stars of all ages, Kline lending understated comedy to his role but remaining credible (the moment he carries Ricci home is a beautiful and rare piece of parent-child bonding), Allen and Weaver exhibiting quiet desperation in very different ways. Most of the younger actors have gone on to prove themselves in ‘bigger’ films but can hardly have been better than they are here: Ricci mixes an assertion of her grown-upness with a very childlike innocence, whilst Hann-Byrd is convincingly troubled by her approaches.
And even though Paul’s story strand (he visits Libbets and Francis in her New York apartment for a bungled night of debauchery) is the least involving of the three, there are valuable echoes to the main story in the neglect of Libbets’ parents, and the feeling that Paul could easily have suffered the same fate as…well, that would be saying.
More than anything, The Ice Storm is a meditation on families that don’t quite work, for no particular reason a favourite topic of mine. Added to its immaculate recreation of both the look and atmosphere of a difficult period of history, and a host of superb, unstarry performances, it resonates on a profound emotional level, even if the emotions are not always comfortable. I love the film, but understand exactly why the same reasons could leave many a viewer out in the cold.