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Whips of ice
on 8 November 2011
This exquisite, bleakly raw, terribly sad film was directed in 1997 by the great Ang Lee, after Sense And Sensibility, and just before the brilliant Ride With The Devil. And what a cast it has, some of whom were fairly obscure or unknown back then. Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood and Katie Holmes are all seen at their best in early roles, and there is also a telling cameo by Allison Janney - The West Wing`s immortal CJ Cregg.
It`s the early 70s, Nixon is still president by the skin of his lying teeth, and the well-heeled residents of suburban Connecticut are sleepwalking into affairs with their neighbours` wives and husbands, attending what would now be called swingers` parties, and virtually ignoring their dislocated, empty-eyed offspring. Welcome to the blank new `lost generation` of the soured American Dream.
Kevin Kline, all coiffed hair and blandly neat clothes, is married to flint-eyed Joan Allen (excellent as always) though their marriage is crawling half-heartedly onto the rocks. Kline drifts into a loveless affair with their friend Sigourney Weaver - a bravely cynical, passive portrayal of a bored femme fatale by this fine actress - while the various children of both couples have begun to experiment, innocently yet with a cool lack of emotion for the most part, with their physical stirrings.
Slowly but very surely (with Ang Lee one is invariably in safe cinematic hands) events spiral out of everyone`s control, leading to an almost casually depicted tragedy. The families are numbly united, no doubt a little wiser, and life, one is left to assume, goes on. It is a poignant, diffident denouement to what seems in hindsight something of a parable, though it never moralises, which is part of its strength and poetic truth. Life is hanging like one of the winter icicles, by a cold, transient thread, the future happiness of all concerned tentative at best.
The way the emotional and sexual lives of the parents are juxtaposed with those of the children is done with subtlety and tact, while sparing use is made of Mychael Danna`s suitably lean musical soundtrack. Certain images linger: the night train carrying home Tobey Maguire at a standstill in a winter `wonderland`, more like a ghost train from a Stephen King story (we`re in the right part of the world, too); Sigourney Weaver, after one too many meaningless adulteries, curled foetus-like half-in & half-out of her bed; city rich-kid Katie Holmes` drugged eyes before she passes out, the viewer fearful of how she will cope with whatever lies ahead; and the ominously long whip Weaver shoves at her son to `play with`, that is echoed much later, and much more ominously, in a jolting `whip` of electric wires...
This has been described as a comedy-drama, and in a way it is, but the comedy is mostly dark and chill, the drama close to Greek tragedy.
A very fine film, worth seeing more than once.