Cinema: A winter's tale of politics, sex and the Seventies

WATERGATE, the oil crisis, Vietnam and the Osmonds made the 1970s a difficult, discouraging decade for American culture. But the decade's mix of political atrophy and social excess is making it an attractive subject for film-makers. Last month, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights turned the clock back to 1975. This month, Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (15) takes the time tunnel to 1973. Costume drama has gone flared: bell-bottoms are the new bodices.

In Sense and Sensibility, Lee and his screenwriter Emma Thompson idealised the 1800s as a flower-strewn summer of love that culminated in sunlit weddings. The Ice Storm (adapted by James Schamus from Rick Moody's novel) focuses on the wintry aftermath of a marriage, that of the Hoods, an affluent couple living in New Canaan, Connecticut. The relationship between Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) is becoming increasingly Arctic: Elena is dabbling with flaky religion, Ben is dabbling with their neighbour, Janey (Sigourney Weaver, a suburban Amazon empress). And while their parents attend an excruciating partner-swapping bash, the teenage Hood children do their own thing: Paul (Tobey Maguire) attempts to seduce a classmate, but only succeeds in knocking her unconscious. Wendy (the uncannily brilliant Christina Ricci) plies Janey's son Sandy (Adam Hann- Byrd) with vodka, and ends up doing the same to him.

Lee is an actor's director and he has coaxed Kline, Allen and Weaver into the best performances of their careers. Kline's mix of fatherly pomposity and camp choler is a rich treat: attempting to lecture his son on the facts of life, he finds himself coming up with pearls like "On the self-abuse front, it's not advisable to do it in the shower - it wastes water and electricity." Though her character is poorly developed, Weaver brings her own brand of steely reason to Janey, lending quiet menace to parental admonitions. However, it's Joan Allen who delivers the film's most carefully inflected performance: though she doesn't get the big speeches Lee lavishes upon her co-stars, her tough, level-headed righteousness is the moral and emotional centre of the film.

But at the eye of The Ice Storm lurks a troubling ambiguity. I found it very difficult to interpret the meaning of Lee's insistence on historical detail. The setting is partly there to provide jokes at its own expense: Kline has several hilarious encounters with a bygone form of ice-cube tray; Weaver reclines on a waterbed reading Philip Roth's When She Was Good: Christina Ricci tunes in too late for the TV news, and you realise that thanks to CNN, it is no longer possible for an American to miss a news bulletin.

But the decade is also put to more serious uses: from the Hoods' TV screen, Richard Nixon is heard to say that "We must recognise that one excess begets another, and that the extremes of violence in the 1960s contributed to the excess of Watergate." Lee goes some way to endorsing a causal relationship between the president's corruption, the promiscuity of bourgeois parents and the waywardness of their children - even to the extent of staging a bizarre scene in which Wendy Hood has her first sexual experience while wearing a rubber Nixon mask. As with Sense and Sensibility, the period setting produces a conservative moral. The Austen adaptation argued for the moral superiority of marriage. The Ice Storm contends that wife-swapping equals woe, allowing us to feel smug and secure in our less radical decade. And that, I think, does the Seventies a disservice.

Since we're now at the fag-end of the Brit-lit boom, directors trying to turn 19th-century novels into movies have to make pretty original use of the material to persuade anyone they wouldn't be better off going straight to the book. Unfortunately, Phil Agland's The Woodlanders (PG) does not. The film tags along behind Hardy with dogged faithfulness, showing how Grace Melbury (Emily Woof) reneges on her betrothal to neckerchiefed proto-Swampy Giles Winterbourne (a lusty, lazy-eyed Rufus Sewell) in order to marry GP and anatomist Dr FitzPiers (Cal MacAninch). Since Sewell's woodsman is sex-on-a-stick, Grace presumably adores FitzPiers for his brain - which he keeps in an enamelled dish on the living room table. As you'd expect from an accomplished documentarist who spent two years filming pygmies in Cameroon, Agland has an eye for exotic detail. The food (apple pies, rabbit stews) looks fantastic; deciduous Dorset feels as damp and lichenous as African rain forest; the soundtrack is alive with unseen owls, nightjars and woodpeckers. It's a meticulously realised lost world. But in focusing on the accumulation of lush minutiae, Agland neglects pace and character: Winterbourne's death is handled perfunctorily, and class acts like Polly Walker and Jodhi May are wasted in roles made marginal by David Rudkin's lumbering adaptation. However, the arboreal eye-candy should please the Dorset tourist board.

Since nobody actually dies in Yolande Zauberman's Clubbed to Death (18), it should probably have been called Boshing and F***ing. With urban decay and grungy sex, Zauberman has updated Alice in Wonderland for the chemical generation, relocating the story to the Parisian club scene. After falling asleep on the last bus home Lola (Elodie Bouchez) gets marooned in the mean multi-ethnic suburbs, and is soon conducting oblique conversations and implausible relationships in a demi-monde of pushers, moshers and amateur boxers. Zauberman's take on this subculture is one of humourless moralism: in the course of the film, Beatrice Dalle's Saida - a coke-snorting club diva - has more lines than SNCF, whereas fresh-faced nice girl Elodie sips Evian with her one and only E, and then decides to just say no. So no prizes for guessing who gets the boy, and who takes the road to ruin.

In Disney's Flubber (U), absent-minded professor Robin Williams makes millions for his college by formulating flying rubber - a lime-green ooze which, applied to tyres, golf balls and basketball players, can send them bouncing into the ether. It also has a personality of its own, as the press notes explain: "Flubber is precocious. A trickster, yet ultimately very noble." I watched for signs of nobility as it plopped into the mouth of Williams's nemesis (a villainous scientific plagiarist played by Christopher McDonald), and ricocheted around his guts before blasting out of his anus - leaving a ragged exit point in his trousers. But I was more puzzled that nobody seemed to have noticed that Williams's lab assistant was a flying robot capable of wireless hook-up to the Internet and generating 3-D holographic projections. Which would not only be worth a buck or two, but also makes extra-springy tyres seem a bit passe.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10

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