The Cider House Rules (1999)

Michael Caine and Tobey Maguire deal with moral dilemmas in this handsome adaptation of John Irving’s Dickensian novel

Director: Lasse Hallström

Cast: Tobey Maguire (Homer Wells), Michael Caine (Dr. Wilbur Larch), Charlize Theron (Candy Kendall), Paul Rudd (Lt. Wally Worthington), Delroy Lindo (Arthur Rose), Erykah Badu (Rose Rose), Heavy D (Peaches), K. Todd Freeman (Muddy), Kieran Culkin (Buster), Jane Alexander (Nurse Edna), Kathy Baker (Nurse Angela), Kate Nelligan (Olive Worthington), J.K. Simmons (Ray Kendall) 

The Cider House Rules is the sort of well-constructed literary adaptation that Hollywood excels at producing: a well-crafted script (Irving adapted his own novel extremely well), juggling serious affairs without hectoring the audience, handsomely mounted, with a Dickensian style and a cast of heavyweight actors delivering performances that speak of their investment in the film.

In a Maine orphanage in the 1940s, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is raised by Dr Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) as a surrogate son. Larch is a domineering autocrat with a passionate love for his charges, whose humanitarian instincts lead him to perform illegal abortions. Troubled by this – and feeling pressured into succeeding Larch’s as director – Homer leaves with a young woman (Charlize Theron) and her fiancée (Paul Rudd) after she visits for an abortion. Working as an apple picker in their orchard, under Mr Rose (Delroy Lindo), Homer learns important lessons above love and duty.

There are many similar films that feel like dull awards-bait, and the fact that this one avoids that is a major point in its favour. It’s very easy with material like this – cute orphans and tear-jerking speeches – to feel Cider House is a manipulative film (and I guess in a way it is) but it’s put together with such commitment and sincerity I found it genuinely moving. Hallström’s warm and beautifully paced direction creates a marvellous coming-of-age tale with characters whose flaws can be as deep as their warmth is vibrant.

The film also manages to move beyond its ‘coming-of-age’ roots with intelligent (but not too heavy-handed) mulling on the nature of “rules” – both those imposed on us and those we impose on others. Dr Larch (a magnetic performance by Oscar-winner Michael Caine) is a maverick, disregarding the abortion laws as he believes it is better he does abortions rather than someone untrained; he is also perfectly willing to impose his own rules on Homer as testaments to be followed without question. Similarly the “Cider House Rules” written on the wall of the apple workers’ lodgings are rejected outright by the working gang for their own unspoken code of conduct, no more effective than the system it replaces. All the characters are forced to draft their own rules (or principles) they can live with, matching their circumstances and actions.

The film also looks gently at the conflict between our desires and our duties, with Homer and Candy both yearning for freedom from their natural inclinations to have something to serve. This is presented as a struggle without a natural “right or wrong”, even if the apple orchard is a loose Garden of Eden, into which evil is admitted with tragic (and life-changing) consequences. A small criticism would be that the charismatic warmth of Caine’s performance and the family atmosphere of the orphanage are so endearing that it does unbalance the dilemma Homer eventually faces – instead of the audience feeling as torn as Homer about whether he should stay or return, most audience members I think would want him to return to the orphanage forthwith!

Tobey Maguire is so perfectly cast as the naïve in some ways, wordly wise in others, old-boy-young-man that he effectively reprised Homer Wells as Peter Parker a few years later. His sweet face –uncomplicated innocence and charm are in every twitch of his smile – carries the film, and his easy-going desire for a simple life makes perfect sense of the character’s rebellion against Larch’s benevolent dictation. Equally good for me though is Theron as Candy. She is a wonderfully expressive performer: midway through the film she is caught off-guard by an overlong hug from Homer, and a series of conflicted emotions from shock, to guilt, to attraction play across her face.

There is hardly a weak performance in the film, with Hallström drawing excellent work from the young orphans. Amongst the sprawling, Dickensian feeling cast, Caine is marvellous as the part dictator, part humanitarian Larch making a larger-than-life character feel real and grounded. Lindo captures the pride mixed with arrogance of Mr Rose. There are plenty of other excellent performances, not least from Baker and Alexander as two contrasting nurses in the orphanage.

I almost feel slightly guilty for the impact Cider House Rules had on me. In many ways it’s exactly the sort of safe, middle-of-the-road “serious” drama that seems designed to attract the notice of Oscar voters. But it’s told with a great deal of skill and dedication, and delivers so many emotional moments with warmth and feeling, I found myself genuinely moved by it. In fact I felt a bit teary at least twice. This is closely linked to some excellent performances – and a wonderful swelling musical score by Rachel Portman – but despite being the sort of middle brow Hollywood film it’s fashionable (and easy) to attack, I thought this was engaging, moving and thought provoking from start to finish.

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