Cider House Rules, The (1999) *** 1/3
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Written by John Irving, based on his novel. Photography, Oliver Stapleton. Editing, Lisa Zeno Churgin. Production design, David Gropman. Music, Rachel Portman. Produced by Richard N. Gladstein. Cast: Tobey Maguire (Homer Wells), Michael Caine (Dr. Wilbur Larch), Charlize Theron (Candy Kendall), Delroy Lindo (Rose), Paul Rudd (Wally Worthington), Jane Alexander (Nurse Edna), Kathy Baker (Nurse Angela), Kieran Culkin (Buster), Kate Nelligan (Olive Worthington), Erykah Badu (Rose Rose), Heavy D (Peaches) et al. A Miramax release. 125 minutes. PG-13
John Irving's novels are fat, have surprises and asides, can meander in interesting ways, and add fantasy to realism. Three have been made into films : "The World According to Garp," (script by Steve Tesich); "The Hotel New Hampshire," (script by Tony Richardson); and "Simon Burch" (adapted very freely from "A Prayer for Owen Meany" with a script by that film's director Mark Steven Johnson)
Irving has not been happy with the films, as he details in his "My Movie Business: A Memoir." He took matters into his own hands by doing the scenario of "The Cider House Rules," a project for 13 years. His script is only a smallish part of the novel, which has been pruned, cut, simplified and made into a most appealing, original movie. You have to see it in order to understand how its title-- a bit precious and esoteric perhaps-- works out. Were Irving starting from scratch, the film might have been simply called "Homer Wells."
It takes you swiftly from the 1920s (when Homer was born) to 1943-45 the years of its major "action," although some hurried reviews make it begin in the 1930s. Michael Caine plays Wilbur Larch, who apparently is not just the M.D. but the loving and beloved ruler of the St.Cloud's orphanage in Maine.
What once was probably a millionaire's rambling mansion at the end of an unpaved road, has been housing a number of parentless (or unwanted) children for years. There are not so many of them so that the building is cracking at the seams, yet for reasons not stated but easy to infer (pedagogical, psychological, practical-- such as heating) the kids are concentrated in a large dormitory. It reminds one of "Zero for Conduct" or "Au Revoir les Enfants" more as a contrast than a similarity since the place is a loving, caring one. None of those aspects is spelled out in the classically lean script, but it does not have to be.
The oldest child --shown as a young man throughout most of the film --is a boy who was twice adopted and twice returned--for no valid reasons. He has been "baptized" Homer Wells by Dr. Larch. The surrogate father and son bond between Homer and Wilbur is a thing of beauty, not deja vu movie-formulaic, not gloppily sentimental, not artificially colorful. It is always touching and attention-holding.
As the senior orphan, quietly and efficiently, Homer has become the doctor's assistant to the point of having Larch say "I've taught him all I know." Like Larch, the young man loves the children and, in a sense, has become their teen-age father. The tiny staff (at least what we see of it) of the establishment is simply the doctor, Homer and two un-fussy, un-glamorous, dedicated nurses. Ther doctor and one of the women have a relationship. so fleetingly and delicately shown that it warms you up.)
Homer can do anything the doctor does, except that he refuses to participate in abortions. These are illegal. Larch is in some demand --by word of mouth, we suppose. He justifies performing performs them as an alternative to the women getting butchered up by back-street abortionists. Is it divine coincidence? The role that brought Michael Caine to prominence was that of Alfie in the eponymous story of an amoral Cockney seducer who even arranges an abortion.
All this takes place in the first part of the movie. Toby Maguire and Michael Caine are superb in warmth, restraint, as distinctive, not hammed up characters. Caine's long list of roles in dramas, action movies, comedies, psychological films, science-fiction, etc. etc. has included spies, con-men, professors, military heroes, spies, cops, gangsters, and everything else imaginable. His acting here may well be the jewel in his crown. His New England accent is excellent -- but just in case some people get picky, when answering a boy's questions about his past the doctor adds "before that I was an immigrant" "What's an immigrant?" says the child. "Someone who does not live in Maine." Maguire has an un-sonorous -even a tad raucous--voice, gives an almost minimalist performance, yet paradoxically he covers a wide emotional range The children are terrific. They are not miserable; they are not Dickensian victims (in a clever touch they are read "David Copperfield" in installments); they are surrounded by affection. Yet they would all love to be adopted, to have a "real" family. A touching sequence where children try to hook might-be parents with broad smiles is a gem.
America is in World War II. In a Ford convertible, Wally, a young, volunteer lieutenant who flies the lethal Burma Run, drives up with his girl Candy. She's two-months pregnant. All goes well. Following the operation, Homer hitches a ride with the couple. He wants to experience the outside world. He's never seen the sea (in Maine!), a lobster, or a movie other than a beat-up print of "King Kong" that is projected to the children over and over. Or any girl of Candy's age and looks.
Wally gets him a job picking apples (hence the cider) on his mother's farm, not too far away, along with a group of black itinerant workers who show up at every season. And as his new friend Wally returns to the war in Asia, Homer finds in Candy (the daughter of a nearby lobster fisherman), a friendly guide. She teaches him how to drive; she shows him a drive-in theater; he sees his second movie ("Wuthering Heights") which rather puzzles him: "It's no King Kong!")
The second part concentrates on Homer away from St. Cloud's, yet it does cut back to the orphanage, its happenings, its sorrows, Dr. Larch's strange, often funny maneuvers to fool the Board of Trustees and keep a kind of status quo. And meanwhile, back on the apple farm and the shores of the Atlantic things happen, things that will go even beyond a kind of coming-of-age for Homer. The first section was beautifully unrushed. The second picks up in speed but still without haste. It has some symmetries with the earlier sections, some predictable but fascinating nonetheless. The production and photography are of a high order that spreads out the Americana side of the story without making it "picturesque."
The choice of Lasse Hallstrom as the director was inspired. He is the Swede who made the near-classic "My Life as a Dog" (Sweden, 1985) and in the USA, "Once Around"" What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "Something to Talk About." His work, character-driven, shows exceptional empathy for children and young people.
Even more than usual I am avoiding clueing in the readers to plot developments. Just see the movie. The late Francois Truffaut would have loved it. It matches almost uncannily his views of love, children, grown-ups who understand them, and adults doing the right thing and the wrong thing.