Drifting ever further from Taiwan, Ang Lee's second English language feature wallows in the changing sexual mores of 70s America. However, The Ice Storm is less of a departure than this description might suggest; as Lee has done before, again he teases apart the cultural institution known as the family. Basing the story around a single Thanksgiving holiday, Lee does something very clever; he immediately puts you at ease with the characters, even though you don't yet know them. With icons peculiar to the era and believable dialogue, The Ice Storm places itself in your comfort zone from the very first scenes. Then, like building a jigsaw from the inside, understanding comes with time. It's a lengthy haul but eventually the pieces slot into place, displaying the bigger picture.
This ability to highlight the small details, when he's actually sketching on a global scale, is perhaps Lee's greatest strength. In this context he's a magician, distracting your attention at the crucial moment then unveiling his entire creation in a single motion -- suddenly everything comes together. In The Ice Storm this instant comes when the three story strands snap into focus, having been separated with a surgeon's attention.
At the highest level sit the adults, engaged in messy affairs, arguments, near-divorces and chronic misunderstandings. Ben and Elena are a typical example of such avoidable chaos. He has an affair with their closest neighbour Janey because Elena is frigid and Janey is available, yet it doesn't have to be like this. Elena is only reluctant to engage in sex because she feels that Ben no longer understands her, if he ever did, and vice versa. It could all be straightened out with a little communication but that's the one thing that they never do; they talk at each other, not to each other.
On the second, most poorly resolved, level Paul stands nearly alone. At the cusp of adulthood, eager to escape his family yet equally fearful of the unknown, he has so far failed in his quest for a sexual relationship. Compared to his roommate Francis, a rampant conqueror of women and drugs, Paul is losing out. Unfortunately this potentially exciting theme is explored only briefly. Paul is positioned mainly as a narrator, to provide a context for the events that transpire. Leaving no room for his personal growth, Paul is short-changed by Lee.
Stuck at the bottom of the heap, the just-teenage Hood and Carver children are pretty much ignored by those above them in the social pecking order. Hence they get to see what everyone else is doing, without getting the opportunity themselves. It takes the self-possessed Wendy to change this, wilfully deciding to experiment with Mikey and Sandy. Fortunately her frank escapades, as she flits between the brothers, are wonderfully free of the standard clichés. There's nothing intrinsically good about these kids, they just haven't learnt enough to taint their innocence.
While these streams flow in parallel, cross one another and eventually merge, one fact becomes clear. The ensemble acting within The Ice Storm is first-rate, evoking the subtle harmonies of a string quartet. All concerned give excellent performances; none of the cast upset Lee's carefully balanced interpretation of Rick Moody's novel. Standing out from this professionalism, Kline straddles a fine line of sympathy. On one side Ben is a brute, blind and deaf to Elena's suffering, on the other he is confused and miserable, seeking solace wherever it's offered. Weaver matches Kline in intensity, though her portrayal is rather mannered; Janey is all ice and no heart. Proving her often under-utilised talent, Ricci delivers burgeoning sexuality along with political and emotional naivety. The irony is that this unsullied viewpoint allows Wendy to see things which others don't, such as the impending downfall of Nixon.
Curiously enough, for all the effort that Lee puts into recreating the atmosphere of 1973, it's not essential to The Ice Storm; all this does is make available ecologically sound and readily available artefacts. Boiled down, Moody's story is a snapshot of people in transition and crisis, a scenario repeated in varying forms across the planet and throughout time. If Lee's film is similarly shorn of its trappings, it becomes a fine rather than an outstanding piece of work. In many key areas it comes unstuck, particularly in its connection to Watergate, and relies on the performances to pull it through these rough patches. Even then The Ice Storm is not as moving as Lee's earlier Eat Drink Man Woman, though still more emotionally truthful than most Hollywood offerings. Perhaps not a film to ponder too deeply then, but one to open your heart to.