"Gold hair in the sunlight, my light in the dawn. If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore…"
Fate can be a tricky concept. While destiny and society may have one path in store for us, in the end, we almost always have a choice. Some great, character defining moment or seemingly insignificant instance that shapes the very contour of the rest of our lives, where we must decide whether to abide by the rules and wishes of others, or make up our own. This is the central dilemma that rests at the core of Lasse Hallstrom's 1999 adaptation of 'The Cider House Rules.' A classically constructed drama with strong characters and deep moral conflicts, the film chronicles one man's wistfully romantic and powerfully moving coming of age.
Written for the screen by author John Irving and adapted from his own novel, the story focuses on Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), an orphan who is raised by the kind Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) to follow in the physician's footsteps. Though Homer cares deeply for his surrogate father and the rest of his makeshift family at the orphanage, he longs to see the outside world and pursue his own passions. When he meets a young couple, Wally (Paul Rudd) and Candy (Charlize Theron), he decides to accompany them and leave his home behind. Soon he finds himself working as an apple picker on an orchard and starts to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Drama soon develops, however, when Wally is sent off to fight in World War II, and Homer and Candy start to develop feelings for one another. Further complications arise among the once seemingly friendly orchard pickers, and coupled with his intensifying affair, Homer's morals and very sense of purpose are pushed to their limits.
The script is rich with powerful themes and insightful observations, which all stem from well rounded and fully realized characters. Early on in we are told that Homer Wells has never laid eyes on a lobster, he's only ever watched one movie ('King Kong'), and he's never seen the ocean. Deprived of so much, not out of malice but ironically love, his character is filled with a deep longing to observe and experience all that he can. Since birth he has been groomed and molded to fit the role that Dr. Larch has planned for him, and while it is a well meaning pursuit, he's never had any say in it. Tobey Maguire plays the part with kindness, innocence, and subtle yearning. Throughout most of the film, the character is almost overwhelmingly passive, and while this might at first seem like a possible flaw, it actually leads to a more potent conclusion. Outside of his decision to leave the orphanage, he almost always amicably does what he's told and tries to avoid conflict. When the story hits its eventual breaking point, and Wells finally actively chooses and embraces his own path in life, Maguire rises to the occasion and injects the character with some much needed drive and passion.
The rest of the cast are also great in their respective roles. Though he disappears for most of the running time, Paul Rudd plays Wally as much more than a mere obstacle for Homer, and his genuinely likeable persona makes the film's love triangle much less cut and dry. Charlize Theron is captivating as Candy, and it's easy to see why Homer falls in love with her. Their romance is handled well and for the most part avoids typical clichés. Much of the movie's drama ends up centering on the orchard workers, and in the role of Arthur Rose, Delroy Lindo manages to maintain a shred of sympathy even after some very dark actions are revealed. In an Oscar winning performance as Dr. Larch, Michael Caine brings a certain fatherly aura to the picture and the relationship between his character and Homer forms the central, thematic dynamic of the narrative.
Director Lasse Hallstrom employs an elegant, classical style to the picture. Using many wide, gracefully composed and smooth moving shots, the filmmaker evokes a time long since passed. Though there are many beautiful images and directorial choices throughout, this is a primarily script driven film, and Hallstrom's style is always in service of the story. There is a level of careful and loving craftsmanship in the form and content here that fits the tone of the narrative perfectly. The movie deals heavily with some very controversial topics, including abortion and incest, and both the director and screenwriter present a pretty evenhanded and multifaceted examination while avoiding simple answers.
Though some aspects of the story can veer too far into sentimentality and certain plot points feel a little glossed over, 'The Cider House Rules' is still a very moving and thought provoking coming of age story. Through his momentary but important detour off the path of destiny, Homer is able to finally discover and embrace the man that he is, and in reality, the man that he was always meant to be. While society and loved ones might try their hardest to impose their own rules upon us, attempting to shape us as they please, in the end, we always have a choice, and guided by his heart, Homer eventually makes his. With its stirring and thematically rich tale of growth and acceptance, 'The Cider House Rules' reminds us, that sometimes we must leave home, so that we may find it again.
"… Someday I'll be like the man on the screen." - Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate brings 'The Cider House Rules' to Blu-ray on a BD-50 disc housed in a standard case. After some skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is region A compatible.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. While a little underwhelming early on, the film's palette opens up nicely as it progresses, leading to a solid and at times impressive image.
The source is clean with only a few sporadic specks and a light layer of grain visible throughout. Early scenes set in the orphanage tend to be a bit soft, drab, and flat looking, but this is an intentional decision on the part of the filmmakers, and once Homer ventures out into the world, the transfer really comes alive. Detail is quite nice, showing off the fine, painterly compositions and striking scenery with pleasing depth. Colors can be very strong and rich, with the lush greens of peaceful countryside, and the deep reds of apples and lipstick popping right off the screen. Black levels are nice and consistent and though a little subdued in the orphanage scenes, contrast is good. On the downside, the picture can have a faintly electronic appearance from time to time, with some minor edge enhancement and noise.
With bold colors and classically composed, beautiful scenery, the film's cinematography shines through nicely. Early scenes are a bit muted, but this is intentional, and enhances the contrast and allure of the outside world once Homer finally ventures forth. Despite some very minor digital enhancement, this is a very good transfer that seems to respectfully represent the film.
The audio is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 mix with optional English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles. While a bit on the quiet side, the mix offers a few welcomed instances of immersion with solid technical proficiency.
Dialogue is full and clean with no signs of crackle or hissing. Directionality is solid but this is a relatively quiet film with a subtle but still effective soundscape. Surround use is a little subdued but several scenes feature some nice, immersive ambient effects. Birds chirping, breaking waves, drizzling rain, and bellowing thunder all help to enhance the mood and bolster the visuals. Rachel Portman's lovely score comes through with stirring fidelity and nice range. Bass activity is pretty minimal, and I'm not sure how much difference a dedicated low frequency channel would have made, but the film's relatively quiet atmosphere seems to do just fine without it. Balance between the audio elements is good, with speech prioritized nicely.
Understated and pleasingly nuanced, 'The Cider House Rules' sounds quite nice but never exactly impressive. The mix suits the film well with some delicate immersion.
Lionsgate has assembled a solid but fairly slim collection of supplements, including a commentary and deleted scenes. All of the extras are presented in standard definition with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and no subtitle options.
'The Cider House Rules' is an elegantly structured, classically shot drama, with well developed characters and strong performances. Through Homer Wells's personal journey, the filmmakers illuminate the joys and pains we must all endure in order to find our place in life. The video and audio presentations offer a pleasing and respectful experience. Supplements are a little slim but worthwhile. This is a solid disc for a good film. Recommended.