Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Cider House Rules (1999)

Dir. Lasse Hallström
Starring: Toby Maguire, Michael Caine, Charlize Theron, Paul Rudd

In the cider house on the Worthington farm where the migrant workers lodge there is a piece of paper tacked up on the wall. This piece of paper holds a set of rules for life there. There are five, they are quite fatuous, and they are roundly ignored by the residents. “Someone who don’t live here made them rules” Mr Rose (Delroy Lindo) says. “Those rules ain’t for us. We are supposed to make our own rules. And we do. Every single day.”

The story behind The Cider House Rules is very amoral. Or, perhaps, very moral. It is about deciding who you want to be and making your own rules for life. Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is raised at St. Cloud’s Orphanage by Dr Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine). Larch runs the orphanage and acts in a paternal role towards the children under his care. Pregnant women make their way to St. Cloud’s and he relieves them of their unwanted burden – either by delivering the babies or by aborting them. Abortions are illegal, but he has decided that the greatest good is achieved by a trained doctor performing them rather than leaving the women to run the risks attached to backstreet terminations. Homer comes to assist Dr Larch – but he decides that while he will deliver babies he will not abort them. Regardless, Wilbur expects the young man he has come to regard as a son to follow in his footsteps. To preserve the practice he is even willing to forge medical credentials in Homer’s name. It is the best way he can think of to keep St. Cloud’s running.

But Homer writes his own story. He leaves for the coast to work as an apple picker. Having never lived for long outside the orphanage he is very innocent. He has never seen the ocean. He has only ever watched one movie. And his heart has never been exposed to the complexities of the outside world. The people he lives and works alongside teach him to break rules. He betrays a friend. He lies. He kills. The lying and the killing are designed to protect someone but all the same he has learnt that there are no absolutes. “Sometimes ya gotta break some rules to put things straight” as Mr Rose puts it. The world in which we live is one of moral relativism. It is easier to let other people make the rules for you and decide your fate. Writing your own story is the hardest thing of all.

Dr. Larch believes that men should play God with their own lives (given his expressed scorn towards Christianity it is a safe bet that he does not believe that there is a real God). To him, the opposite of playing God is “leaving practically everything up to chance. Men and women of conscience should seize those moments where it’s possible to play God. There won’t be many.” Candy (Charlize Theron) is incapable of deciding what she wants, torn between her feelings for Homer and Wally (Paul Rudd). Her relationship with Homer has not been pre-ordained. It just sort of happens. They “wait and see” and don’t make any decisions about it, and that allows the affair to continue. The imminent return of a wounded Wally changes that. She has to make a decision. But she can’t. And so Homer makes it for her. Homer recognises her state of mind: “Maybe if I just wait and see long enough then I won’t have to do anything or decide anything, you know? I mean, maybe if I’m lucky enough, someone else will decide and choose and do things for me.” He decides to make way for Wally and go back to St. Cloud’s.

Making movies with Michael Caine and Tobey Maguire

I said earlier that in many ways the film is quite amoral. Homer’s various adventures can be preparation for him having to make the right, moral choice – and abort a foetus. The abortion debate is presented quit matter-of-factly: either a trained and qualified doctor will conduct the termination or the woman will resort to a dangerous backstreet procedure. And in actual fact, those unwanted babies that are not aborted, but are kept at the orphanage seem to have quite a lot of fun. I found the opening scenes of children running around the halls while a cheerful soundtrack plays in the background a bit jarring once I realised Dr. Larch was conducting operations. The relationship between Mr Rose and his daughter Rose (Erykah Badu) also isn’t particularly questioned, other than that it would necessitate an abortion. To be honest, there are some things that call for greater discussion really. The situations in the film are presented, but then not ever particularly debated. Still, the screenplay, adapted from his own novel by John Irving, was awarded the Oscar, so who am I to carp? Michael Caine also won an Oscar for his performance as the fatherly Dr. Larch. I didn’t even know that he could do an American accent!

What have I learnt about Maine?
It is famous for its apples, its cider and its lobsters. I think I could survive quite comfortably there on that diet. The Atlantic Ocean breaks right up on shore and is quite, quite beautiful.

Being from Maine is regarded as a desirable attribute (if you cannot be born in Maine, at least be from New England). Anyone from outside Maine is an “immigrant”.

There is full expression of the seasons in Maine. The autumns are golden brown, and snow lies on the ground in winter.

Can we go there?
The locations in the story are fictional. There is no orphanage at St. Clouds because there is no St. Clouds. From the film we are lead to believe that it is on the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad (a real life railroad that lead north from Bangor to cover the north-eastern section of Maine). However the railway used for filming – complete with steam engines – was Vermont’s Green Mountain Railroad. The St. Cloud railway station was actually the Bellows Fall halt near Rockingham.

As for the orphanage, the instantly-recognisable exterior was Ventfort Hall in Lenox, western Massachusetts. It now houses a museum of the ‘Gilded Age’ and can be visited. Interiors were shot in Northampton, Massachusetts – at the former Northampton State Hospital  for instance (which has now been torn down).

Similarly the Ocean View Orchards at Cape Kenneth don’t really exist. Homer’s first sight of the ocean is in Maine however. It is Sand Beach in Acadia National Park. Candy lives by the sea in what is, in real life, Thurston’s Lobster Pound in Bernard. Both are on Mount Desert Island. Certainly seems like a good spot to stop for dinner! The Worthington estate does not have an ocean view however; it is located inland, in Vermont. The Scott Farm north of Brattleboro is used. The cider house is actually the Sugar House, which can be rented for stays.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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