Grim, engrossing U.K. TV mystery from the best-selling crime novel. No doubt in an effort to soak up some of that ancillary James Bond promotional gravy, BBC and Warner Home Video have released The Ice House, the 1997 television adaptation of Minette Walters' award-winning novel, starring Daniel Craig, Corin Redgrave, Kitty Aldridge, Frances Barber, and Penny Downie. A forbidding, depressing mystery that touches on uncomfortable themes such as pedophilia, homophobia, lawless retribution, and incest, The Ice House is recommended viewing for those U.K. mystery fans who like their "cozy village mysteries" not so cozy. A lengthy featurette on the author is included as a welcome bonus for this good-looking transfer.
Street Grange, Silverbourne. Frightened handyman Fred Phillips (Dave Hill) comes running up to the Grange's owner, Phoebe Maybury (Penny Downie), who's enjoying the morning on her patio with housemates Anne Cattrell (Kitty Aldridge) and Diana Goode (Frances Barber). Fred, badly shaken, has found a badly decomposed, partially consumed nude body in the abandoned ice house, located inside an overgrown hillock on the grounds. The police are called, with coarse, single-minded Detective Chief Inspector George Walsh (Corin Redgrave, excellent as always in an unsympathetic, to say the least, role) taking along his Detective Sergeant Andy McLoughlin (Daniel Craig), to interview the "butch beauties" of Street Grange. D.C.I. Walsh is almost positive the body in the ice house is Maybury's long-lost husband David (Paul Jerricho), who went missing ten years, and whom many people in the local village believe was murdered by Phoebe. The locals, hostile towards Maybury because they believe she also killed her parents for her inheritance, are equally unaccepting of her lifestyle: they disparage her and her housemates as predatory lesbians. That's certainly the story that D.S. McLoughlin, newly separated from his wife and tilting dangerously towards alcoholism, has heard, an impression confirmed by dismissive, contemptuous Anne. Soon, however, Andy learns that nothing is as it seems at Street Grange, as the nude body in the ice house remains unidentified...and Andy becomes romantically involved with Anne.
I've never read any of Minette Walters' novels, so I can't speak to how faithful The Ice House is to its source material (which shouldn't matter anyway: books and movies are two entirely different―and separate―aesthetic experiences). However, the best compliment I can give this three-hour TV adaptation, at least in the context of her works, is that after watching it, I got online and requested the novel from our local library. That may not help Walters' royalty statement at the end of the year, but like many literary works adapted into movies, it's a good rule of thumb that having a built-in "commercial" out there for a title―especially one as gripping as The Ice House―can only promote sales long-term.
About a year or so ago I had a reader really take me to task for revealing the end of a movie (despite a big red "spoiler alert" warning in the text), and ever since, I've tried to take his criticism to heart and lay off the "big reveal," even if that does necessarily make a review like this one for The Ice House much more generalized than I'd like. After all, how can you truly discuss the nuances of a mystery, and why it succeeds or doesn't, if you can't spell out the mystery itself (to take an obvious example that won't spoil anything for anyone: how do you really discuss Psycho without revealing what, exactly, Anthony Perkins, and not his dead mother, is doing?). Still, The Ice House's mystery line is so cleverly developed within its romance/social issues framework, with believable red herring clues and a genuine "twist" ending (that I didn't see coming at all)―all the more powerful because they weren't gimmicky―that I won't go into the kind of detail that would spoil the movie for anyone else who isn't familiar with the novel.
Adapted by actress/screenwriter Lizzie Mickery (U.K. television like Heartbeat and The BillNorma Jean & Marilyn and Madame Bovary), The Ice House's overriding tone of gloomy, depressive secrecy and duplicity was a welcome departure from the more "sunny" (if you will), ironic, perverse (but equally deadly) "cozy village mysteries" I usually review here at DVDTalk. While the dark degree of the human foibles and subsequent motives for murder in The Ice House can find sympathetic echoes in Christie's Marple and Poirot mysteries, or in newer fare such as Midsomer Murders, the ameliorating nostalgia of the Christie period decors or the delightfully wicked, grotesque humor of your average Midsomer episode, are completely missing from The Ice House (if the family dog ate a corpse in Midsomer if would get a laugh; here, it makes someone almost vomit). An oppressive curtain of pain and secrecy hangs over Street Grange, strangling and depleting its inhabitants with a sense of dread manifest literally with a "skeleton in the closet" (or two...). The village locals are no better off, ruled by unfounded prejudice and surprisingly potent, sudden violence, while the police, the detectives who are supposed to bring order and justice into the mystery format, are either dysfunctional, emotional cripples who also rely on ill-informed preconceived notions...or outright liars and active parties to injustice.
By drawing a portrait that has everyone so emotionally devastated by past events in The Ice House, Walters (I'm assuming) pulls off the neat trick of taking what could have been a facile, clichéd plot development―Andy's romance with Anne―and by contrast, turning it into a surprisingly resonant exploration of instant (but conflicting) attraction and eventual emotional salvation. Considering how personally mismatched the two characters are to begin with, deepened by their adversarial roles, it's quite touching to see how Walters, Mickery, Fywell, and Craig and Aldridge take these damaged people and create a believable romance, particularly for Craig's character, who goes from bigoted alcoholic to a copper with a conscience and a lover who acknowledges he needs time to reawaken his innate sensitivity. Don't get me wrong: The Ice House's mystery is crackerjack, deepened by Walters' grasp of the primal, ugly, subterranean forces at work beneath her enjoyable twists and turns and red herrings. However, I found the central romance, enacted with snappy chemistry between the alluring, enigmatic Aldridge and Craig (in the first performance of his I've actually enjoyed), as rewarding as Walters' one-two punch of first-rate mystery and unsettling social commentary. If you tend to rely on the more "comfortable" English village mysteries when you want a bit U.K. suspense, then you owe it to yourself to stretch a bit with the puzzling, disturbing The Ice House.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.