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USA 1999
Directed by
Lasse Hallstrom
125 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Cider House Rules

Lasse Hallström makes carefully-realized “quality” films with top drawer production values and literary tones. The Cider House Rules, adapted from a novel by John Irving is an example of his approach at its best.

Set during WWII in Maine, New England it tells the story of an orphan, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), who is effectively adopted by his own orphanage and the doctor in charge Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine). Although Dr Larch wants Homer to succeed him, Homer is curious about the world  beyond and so leaves, whence he becomes an apple-picker and has his heart broken before eventually he returns to take up hismission in life.

Not having read the book I’m not sure what the film’s title refers to.  As a field hand Homer bunks in with a team of Negro workers . On the wall of their accommodation in the “cider house” are a set of rules of which much are made, the general point, as is indicated by team leader  Mr Rose (Delroy Lindo), being that they were made by people who don’t live in the cider house and that it’s right to make one’s own rules. But as the story unfolds, this fine-sounding sentiment is shown to be not always true.  Evidently the key to Irving’s message is there somewhere but how it underpins Homer’s story is far from clear.  Is the cider house an equivalent of the orphanage and Homer’s story one of him realizing that in life he can't make his own rules?

The film works best as a straightforward period tale that thematically deals mainly with the attitudes of the time toward abortion. The recreation of the time and place is flawless and watching the film feels very much like turning the pages of a novel with everything falling into place beautifully, Hallström’s skill as a film-maker matching that of Irving as a novelist (Irving, who won an Oscar for his screenplay, chose Hallström after multiple try-outs). Given that Irving also wrote the screenplay one must assume that this is what he wanted but its self-consciously Dickensian approach to story-telling. whilst charming, keeps us emotionally at arm’s length, an approach exemplified by Homer who believes that he mustn’t get excited because of his heart condition.

The quality of the cast matches the overall quality of the production although why Michael Caine, who won Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) was chosen to play a New England doctor is a mystery.  On the other hand Maguire is well-suited to his narrator/observer role and Charlize Theron is engaging playing the tomboy with whom Homer falls in love and the children, as always with Hallström (compare his best-known film My LIfe As A Dog, are cute.

 

 

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