The film stars Toby McGuire as orphan Homer Wells and Michael Caine as Dr. Wilbur Larch, a physician who begins his career at a secluded orphanage in Maine, presumably with thoughts of medical heroics. Larch gradually realizes that he has inadvertently been made the custodian of the abandoned, the unwanted and the unloved rather than their saviour. Although occasionally bitter, Larch accepts his calling with a dedication and gentle understanding towards the orphans. He takes particular interest in Homer who has been twice adopted and twice returned by his foster parents.
Larch recognizes an extraordinary and acute sense of propriety in the young man, however, and with guidance and gentle teaching he transforms Homer into a obstetrics apprentice who daily assists him in the delivery of babies and - on occasion - performing of abortions. The latter procedure is, of course, illegal and performed in secrecy; a decision that Homer finds particularly distasteful, despite Larch's explanation that refusal to perform the proper medical procedure would only result in more casualties from botched 'backroom' abortions performed elsewhere.
Despite never having even attended high school, Homer is a success at his career. Moreover, he has the respect of both the staff and the children at the orphanage - particularly Buster (Kieran Culkin). Still, something is missing from Homer's life. Thus, when Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) and her flyer/boyfriend Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) arrive at the orphanage in Wally's flashy car to have an abortion, Homer is captivated by thoughts of life in the outside world. Immediately befriended by both Wally and Candy, Homer decides to leave the orphanage, much to the dismay of Dr. Larch. Nevertheless, Homer is taken to Wally's family apple orchard where he becomes a picker under Arthur Rose's (Delroy Lindo) guidance.
Wally is sent off to war, flying dangerous missions over Burma. In his absence, Candy and Homer begin a friendship that quickly blossoms into romance. Candy introduces Homer to a whole new world of experiences. Their nights are spent spooning at an abandoned drive-in; their days, mostly at her father Ray's (J.K. Simmons) lobster shack. Meanwhile on the farm, Mr. Rose's daughter, Rose (Erykah Badu) becomes pregnant by her father, a situation that repulses Candy and infuriates Homer.
Dr. Larch, who has been trying to woo Homer back to the orphanage as his eventual replacement, has begun to forge Homer's medical degrees in order to secure his placement and pedigree as the legitimate heir with the board of governors. He even mails Homer a doctor's kit to the orchard that comes in handy when Rose decides to have an abortion.
News arrives that Wally has been shot down over Burma. Though he has survived the crash, Wally is paralyzed from the waist down. Candy, who has, until that moment, enjoyed a playfully passionate romance with Homer on the farm, suddenly realizes that her loyalty is to Wally. Meanwhile, Dr. Larch - who frequently relieved his daily stresses by indulging in the recreational use of Chloroform has inadvertently taken an overdose of the drug and died. His death is conveyed to Homer by a letter from Nurse Angela (Kathy Baker) - Dr. Larch's mistress in long standing.
It is mostly in the last act of John Irving's screenplay (based on his own novel) that the book and the movie differ. In the novel, Candy's sense of duty compels her to marry Wally. However, their life together is complicated by the fact that Homer and Candy continue to meet in secret rendezvous that eventually results in Candy becoming pregnant with Homer's child. Later, the child from that union - Angel - becomes involved in an interracial romance with Arthur's daughter, Rose.
The movie jettisons virtually all of these plot entanglements in favour of a much more straight forward dénouement. As the family awaits Wally's return from the hospital, tragedy strikes. Arthur Rose is knifed by his daughter as revenge for her pregnancy. Rose escapes into the night, presumably to start her life anew somewhere else.
After a bittersweet breakup, Candy willingly comes to Wally's aid as his dutiful wife. Homer decides to leave the orchard and return to the orphanage as Dr. Larch's replacement. In the final moments of the film, Homer is seen reading a bedtime story to the orphans, ending with "Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England;" a declaration that Dr. Larch nightly instilled in his unfortunates as both a sense of personal pride and a note of hopeful optimism that their futures will rise above their present circumstances.
As a film, The Cider House Rules is an emotionally uplifting and ultimately satisfying triumph of the human spirit. Author/screenwriter John Irving has previously defended his right to change the last act of his novel for the film, arguing that his excision of several characters central to the novel resulted in a tighter film narrative that in due course did his story justice. This critic wholeheartedly agrees and apparently so did Academy voting members who awarded Irving the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Michael Caine's subtly nuanced performance justly won Best Supporting Actor.
If the film does have a flaw, it arguably remains in the rather pedestrian acting from both Toby McGuire and Charlize Theron. McGuire, who has made his career out of playing basically the same clean cut character - perennially prepubescent and worldly naive - is competent in handling the first act of the story when everything, including human sexuality, is new to Homer. However, the romance that eventually blossoms between Homer and Candy - charged with passionate eroticism in the novel that is briskly attempted, then jettisoned from the film, is wholly unremarkable and rather unbelievable.
Theron's performance is somewhat stilted throughout. Neither she nor McGuire gives it their all, and it is saying much of Oliver Stapleton's cinematography that it manages to convey both a sensual quality as well as establish a distinct period feel even when the characters set before it seem more at home in a contemporary setting. Rachel Portman's tender and evocative score (currently used as background for the Pure Michigan TV and radio ads) elevates the visuals to another artistic plain. In the final analysis, The Cider House Rules is a great story told with expert craftsmanship behind the camera. More often than not, it is that craftsmanship that is the film's salvation.
Alliance Home Video's Blu-ray is most welcome, though not flawless. The 1080p image is crisp and mostly clean with rich, fully saturated colours. Flesh tones are quite natural. Fine details are nicely realized. The image pops quite nicely with richly saturated greens, blues and reds. There are several brief occasions where the image appears a tad digitized, but otherwise this is a satisfying, film like presentation with no real complaints.
The audio is represented in DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital. The DTS exhibits obvious sonic clarity over the 5.1 mix. There are no extras. One note of descention: like most Alliance releases - this one comes with a seemingly endless barrage of trailers that one must toggle through before the feature begins. Also, there is NO way to access chapters or even a main page of options.
* Come on, Alliance - we're not in the infancy of DVD/Blu-ray authoring any more. Basic functions MUST BE provided for on ALL Blu-ray releases!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)