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

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us