A STORY ABOUT HOW FAR WE MUST TRAVEL TO FIND THE PLACE WHERE WE BELONG.
In 1999, the Swedish director Lasse Hallström was hot in Hollywood. He had spent the ’90s more or less introducing Leonardo DiCaprio to the world in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and then made Dennis Quaid and Julia Roberts look their very best in Something to Talk About (1995). The Cider House Rules became his most critically acclaimed film in Tinseltown, earning multiple Oscar nominations, including one for Best Director.
Growing up in an orphanage
Somewhere in Maine there’s an orphanage run by Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine). This is where Homer Wells grows up, a boy whose first foster parents return him because they think he’s too quiet. His second foster parents turn out to be abusive and Homer is rescued by Dr. Larch. Some of the children are never adopted and Homer stays at the orphanage, making an impression on everyone. He’s beloved by the children and as he grows older Dr. Larch teaches him obstetrics. Homer learns how to perform an abortion, even though it is illegal, but unlike Dr. Larch he disapproves of them and won’t do them.
Eventually, Dr. Larch wants Homer to take over the orphanage and his medical position, but he refuses; not only does he lack the formal education, he also wants to see the world. That journey begins with Homer meeting the beautiful Candy (Charlize Theron) and her boyfriend (Paul Rudd), who’s about to go out and fight in World War II…
Learning about the world
John Irving wrote his novel in 1985 and like his breakthrough hit ”The World According to Garp” it was a Bildungsroman, following its protagonist from youth to adulthood, as he learned valuable lessons about the world. The film adaptation of ”Garp”, released in 1982, had its memorably offbeat moments, but when Irving sat down to adapt ”The Cider House Rules” for the screen (his first attempt as a screenwriter) he made choices that intentionally or not seemed to fit Lasse Hallström, a somewhat conservative filmmaker, better. There are no crazy ingredients here and, at least the way I see it, Irving toned down the epic aspects of the novel, making sure the script fit a two-hour movie. We don’t learn as much about Dr. Larch’s background as we do in the novel and one of the key characters, Homer’s first girlfriend Melony, has been erased. Still, Irving did a fine job translating his story into a movie.
Abortion remains an important theme and the film illustrates capably and emotionally why Homer is wrong and needs to go out in the world and meet women in order to learn the true downside to keeping abortion illegal. He may be quiet but he’s a bright young man who understands that his romance with Candy will always come second to the man she really loves, the one who’s fighting in the war; in spite of the predictability, those characters come alive thanks to Maguire and Theron. There’s also Oliver Stapleton’s lush autumn cinematography as Homer joins an apple-picking crew at a Maine orchard and Rachel Portman’s gorgeous, sweet music score, one of her most memorable; when the film tugs at our heartstrings it’s mostly because of her swelling strings.
Caine may be the movie’s MVP though, excellent as the doctor who cares deeply for his protégés but has personal demons of his own, soothed by his addiction to ether. There are moments of darkness in the story, but Hallström’s addiction to the light and sweet dominates. It’s not really a bad thing in this case.
The Cider House Rules 1999-U.S. 125 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Richard N. Gladstein. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Screenplay, Novel: John Irving. Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton. Music: Rachel Portman. Cast: Tobey Maguire (Homer Wells), Charlize Theron (Candy Kendall), Michael Caine (Wilbur Larch), Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd, Kathy Baker… Jane Alexander, Kieran Culkin, Erykah Badu, Kate Nelligan, J.K. Simmons.
Trivia: Leonardo DiCaprio was reportedly considered for the lead role; Michael Winterbottom for directing duties. The novel was also turned into a stage play. Irving chronicled his experiences working on this film in the book ”My Movie Business”.
Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Caine), Adapted Screenplay.
Last word: “I think John Irving would have liked me to try things that I never tried, because I was so eager to keep things on a real level, not to have things stand out, to detach an audience. Shock effect for effect only. I suspected that that was on the page here and there, and I threw it out. Earlier movies of John Irving, I have a vague memory of them. They’re different in that they try to translate the bizarre, the spectacular, in a way that this movie doesn’t. It’s very subdued Irving, despite the fact that the issues could leave room for cruder moments. But I’ve been really careful about bringing it down, so I don’t detach the audience by shocking them.” (Hallström, Indiewire)