Cider House Rules, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Note to readers: this review contains spoilers. While I do not believe the revelation of certain plot points will in any way compromise the viewing experience, those who wish to see The Cider House Rules without having previous knowledge of certain elements would do well to bail out now and return after they have seen the film.

The final few months of 1999 have seen a flurry of wonderful films reaching theaters - a concentrated heaven for movie-goers the likes of which has not been seen in years (and certainly not since I started reviewing). One of the best and brightest of these is Lasse Hallstrom's The Cider House Rules. Backed by Miramax money, the director of My Life As a Dog has crafted a beautiful, emotionally resonant motion picture. The script by John Irving is based on his novel of the same name (Irving, incidentally, also has a cameo in the film as a station master near the end). Unlike last year's Simon Birch or the other Irving book-to-movie translations, this picture stays reasonably true to its written inspiration and doesn't veer off into the territory of unbearable melodrama.

Most of the story transpires during the mid-1940s in an America that has added its strength to the Allied forces. Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is ineligible to join the military because of a bad heart. He has spent his entire life at an orphanage in St. Clouds, Maine as the special project of Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), who sees great promise in the boy and imparts valuable medical knowledge to him. By the time he has reached adulthood, Homer is as good a doctor as Larch, albeit without a degree. There is also a moral divide between them: Larch will perform abortions (even though they're illegal), but Homer will not. Life changes for Homer with the arrival of Air Force officer Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend, Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron). She's at the orphanage for an abortion, and, after a brief stay, she is ready to go home. Homer chooses this moment to hitch a ride with them out of St. Clouds so he can see the world and establish a life for himself. That life eventually includes picking apples at a remote orchard and falling in love with Candy while her beau is off flying missions against Japan. Meanwhile, back at the orphanage, Dr. Larch finds his hopes continually dimming that Homer will one day return.

The Cider House Rules does everything right - there are no obvious missteps. Character development is strong. The plot moves at a perfect pace - not so slow that audiences will lose interest, but not so fast that the narrative begins to break down. There are a few unexpected turns, but nothing catastrophic or difficult to swallow, and the movie steers clear of overt manipulation. Emotions generated by this picture (and there are many) seem genuine, not as if the director is forcing us to feel something. The ending is satisfying without being too sentimental. Rachel Portman's score strikes all of the right notes - it is powerful without going over-the-top. And Oliver Stapleton's cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking.

The impetus behind The Cider House Rules is Homer's search to find himself. During his time at St. Clouds, the course of his life has been mapped by the expectations of others. He is a big brother to the other orphans and a helper to Dr. Larch, but, trapped within such an insular community, he has never had the opportunity to unlock the real Homer Wells. The arrival of Wally and Candy opens a door to the outside, and Homer rushes through it. Only after he has discovered himself can he chart his future.

The movie is also about the relationships between parents and children. Nearly everyone in the film fills the role of a child, a parent, or, in one case, both. Of course, this is the cycle of human life - children grow up to become parents, so Hallstrom and Irving are merely illustrating this truth. Dr. Larch is the ultimate father (despite his assertion that he is the "caregiver to many [and] father to none"), and the orphans are the ultimate children. There's Mr. Rose and his daughter, and Wally and his mother. Homer is the lone character who transitions from one role to the other. He leaves St. Clouds as a boy and returns as a man.

Relationships in The Cider House Rules are complex, and the movie never condescends to or judges its characters. Larch and Homer are more like father and son than mentor and pupil. The boys and girls at the orphanage have forged a strong bond as a result of the shared experiences of loneliness and dejection - each time a family comes to adopt, all but one of them will be disappointed. It's a pleasure to see an orphanage not straight out of Dickens (although there are plenty of Dickensian references throughout the film - at story time, the novel being read is David Copperfield). In fact, there's more of a sense of family here than exists in many traditional households. And there's a tremendous feeling of mixed poignancy and affection every evening when Dr. Larch repeats this refrain to his boys: "Good night you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England."

Homer's love affair with Candy, despite being inevitable considering the circumstances, is clouded with uncertainty -- what will happen if/when Wally returns? Candy will have to choose, and that's not something she is good at. Meanwhile, Homer's relationship with the other apple pickers (migrant workers who show up every summer to start work, then head south for the winter) becomes increasingly convoluted the more he gets to know about them and their well-guarded secrets.

The film addresses two serious issues: abortion and incest. There really aren't two sides to the latter subject, and The Cider House Rules doesn't pretend that there are. It shows the kind of emotional wreckage that can result from a twisted family relationship. The impact is not as forceful as that of The War Zone, but both films explore the similar territory of the abuse of power. Meanwhile, by having main characters on both sides of the abortion issue, The Cider House Rules manages to give the debate a reasonably balanced perspective, and the 1943 setting makes the proceedings seem more fresh than is often the case for films that tackle this subject. At first glance, it appears that Irving and Hallstrom may be short-changing the anti-abortion side, but, upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that there's real sense of fairness to the film's approach. Impressively, the movie manages to make its points without resorting to sermonizing.

The acting is on a consistently high level. Tobey Maguire, who can also be seen as the lead in Ride With the Devil, has come into his own in 1999. His performance here is perfectly pitched. Emerging from his sheltered life at the orphanage, Homer shows remarkable poise and maturity in some areas, and great naivete in others. Maguire flawlessly captures the nuances of this character - there isn't a moment when we don't see Homer as worth an investment of time and sympathy. Charlize Theron, who, like Maguire, has grown as a performer in recent years (I'm willing to forgive her The Astronaut's Wife), shows depth and poise as Candy. The key to playing this part is subtlety - Theron avoids the kind of histrionics that could have transformed this movie from a sublime experience into an overwrought melodrama. Michael Caine, sporting a rare accent (of an impeccable New England variety), gives one of his best turns in years. Caine has often been lambasted for his willingness to take any role if the money is right, but his work here reminds us that he is an actor of great talent and ability. Paul Rudd brings Wally to life as the prototypical nice guy. The fact that we genuinely like his character is the reason why the three-pronged romance has such depth. As always, Delroy Lindo, who plays Mr. Rose, the leader of the migrant apple pickers, is a consummate professional. And singer Erykah Badu acquits herself admirably as Mr. Rose's daughter.

In a little over two hours, with a strong cast, an accomplished cinematographer, and a well-tuned script, Hallstrom has fashioned a motion picture of visual splendor and emotional depth. The Cider House Rules defies conventions as it successfully turns back the clock to the wartime years and tells a story that is unique, despite a number of familiar elements. There are many good films available in multiplexes at this time of year, but few offer a more fulfilling experience than the one promised, and delivered, by The Cider House Rules.

Cider House Rules, The (United States, 1999)

Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1999
Run Time: 2:11
U.S. Release Date: 1999-12-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1