“The Cider House Rules” represents one of the most successful attempts yet at filming the work of popular American novelist John Irving, whose colorfully larger-than-life characters and eccentric stories have often proved too page-bound to function onscreen. Dealing in habitual Irving themes of family, love and the search to find a place and purpose in the world, director Lasse Hallstrom’s film could have used more dramatic muscle but is nonetheless a touching, old-fashioned charmer that ultimately satisfies. Miramax will need to target adult audiences craving gentle, middle-of-the-road entertainment, many of whom may be likely to balk at the film’s controversial pro-choice stance on abortion.
Unlike the film adaptations of “The World According to Garp” and “The Hotel New Hampshire” and last year’s “Simon Birch,” which was suggested by Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” the novelist adapted this screenplay himself. Irving has successfully whittled down his massive 1985 tome into a workable form that covers vast chunks of narrative without unduly galloping or sacrificing story flow and retains a literary feel while breathing life into its characters and situations.
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Opening in the 1930s at St. Cloud’s orphanage in the Maine countryside, the story outlines how twice-adopted, twice-returned child Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) was raised with love by big-hearted Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), who heads the institution. Trained by Larch as a doctor, Homer helps care for abandoned children and deliver unwanted babies. But his moral qualms prevent him from assisting in the illegal abortions Larch performs, despite the humane reasoning of his father figure, who advocates the right to take responsibility for one’s life and insists that terminating pregnancies safely helps keep women from being butchered by backyard abortionists.
When young World War II pilot Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) and his pregnant girlfriend, Candy (Charlize Theron), come to St. Cloud’s for an abortion, Homer impulsively decides to leave with them and see the world beyond the orphanage. Not getting as far as the Maine state line, he takes work at the apple orchard and cider brewery owned by Wally’s mother (Kate Nelligan) and helps out in Candy’s family lobster business. With Wally away at war, his closeness to Candy grows, soon blossoming into love.
The film moves along to an agreeable rhythm and is never unengaging, but it feels dramatically undernourished for much of the running time, gaining some thrust only with the arrival of a primary subplot involving both abortion and incest. This centers on young orchard worker Rose (Erykah Badu), who has become pregnant by her father, the cider house foreman (Delroy Lindo). Together with news of Wally’s return in a wheelchair and of Larch’s death, leaving the orphanage without a doctor, the difficult situation forces Homer to make complex decisions that will shape his future.
While it fails to match the quirky sweetness of Swedish director Hallstrom’s best U.S. film, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?,” this coming-of-age tale achieves a similar kind of melancholy poignancy despite never fully charging its dramatic engines. This restraint makes it feel often as muted as the wintry tones and soft autumnal colors of Oliver Stapleton’s handsome widescreen lensing. Rachel Portman’s score pushes the emotional agenda far too strenuously, but even as the camera lingers on the orphanage’s angelic tykes, the film’s sentimentality stays on the right side of syrupy.
A consistently strong, sensitive actor, Maguire, with his hurt vulnerability and fragile, strangely moving voice, is a fine choice for Irving’s quiet hero. Caine also scores in an uncharacteristic role and easily the film’s most memorable supporting turn, bringing Larch a rich, disarming humanity. Lindo’s conflicted character represents a well-handled change from the cool urbanites he usually plays, while Theron is appealing without showing much range. Singer Badu is natural and affecting in her first dramatic role.