THE CIDER HOUSE RULES lovingly transforms the 704 pages of John Irving’s epic 1985 bestseller novel into 126 minutes of screen time, with the author rendering his own adaptation. Direction was placed in the gifted hands of Lasse Hallström, guiding a strong cast through this emotional, rewarding 1999 drama, which won Irving’s script an Oscar, Michael Caine his second as Supporting Actor, and nominations for Best Picture, Director, Music Score, Film Editing and Art Direction.
In the years before WW2, an isolated orphanage in the Maine backwoods is run, with an emphasis on kindness, by the fatherly ‘Dr. Larch’ (Caine) and his devoted nurses. One of their charges, the bright and affable ‘Homer Wells’, is trained by Larch in obstetrics, and aids in providing discreet illegal abortions to desperate women. Of age during the war, Homer (Tobey McGuire) leaves the retreat to gain life experience in the outside world, starting by working for an orchard run by the family of the Army pilot boyfriend (Paul Rudd) of one of Larch’s patients, ‘Candy Kendall’ (Charlize Theron). Homer shares ‘cider house’ duties with a team of migrant workers, headed by ‘Mr. Rose’ (Delroy Lindo), and finds bonds of affection growing with Candy. The complications of life outside the cloister of his upbringing call on the character he formed and skills he learned before entering ‘The World’.
Irving’s Dickensian gift for creating deep portraits of recognizable, richly complex, flawed and engaging characters and Halström’s graceful, humanistic touch with the material and performers cross-pollinate, unifying in a tolerant viewpoint that leaves judgment to posterity. Uncertainty vies with reassurance, wry humor with jolting injections of pain and loss. The ebb and flow of joy and sorrow achieve sentiment without resorting to the saccharine, cute without goop, realism without revulsion. The story offers truth and meaning not in sweeping arcs but in the details. Triumphs are in the moment.
All the actors are in fine form. McGuire, 23, has a difficult role to pull off, blending calm capability and honest naiveté, someone eager to seek but in check at the same time. Theron, 22, shows skill at projecting natural beauty without artifice, hinting at the really powerhouse work she’d demonstrate later on. Caine is terrific (he’s never less than excellent, even in cruddy movies) and it helps that Larch is a great character, one of those can’t-lose parts actors die for. In no way tarnishing his superb job, it may be that his Oscar was somewhat of a career-bonus gift, as it shut out what many consider an even more impressive turn from fellow nominee Tom Cruise in Magnolia (with a much less lovable character). It could not have hurt to have the imposing Delroy Lindo on that list as well: this is probably his finest performance. Talk about presence! All the child actors are spot-on.
Scored from the soul by Rachel Portman, beautifully photographed through the eyes of Oliver Stapleton, shooting on untrod bucolic locations in Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine. Its calm, old-fashioned, antique look welcomes the seasons without coming off like a Hallmark selection. The depicted era comes through. $24,000,000 went into the production, which earned back $88,546,000, 42nd place among the years offerings.
Featuring Eryka Badu (‘Rose Rose’), Jane Alexander, Kieran Culkin (‘Buster’), Kathy Baker, Eric Per Sullivan (‘Fuzzy’), Evan Parke, K. Todd Freeman, Heavy D, Kate Nelligan, Paz de la Huerta, Spencer Diamond and J.K. Simmons. “Goodnight, you princes of Maine. You kings of New England.”