I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Michael Caine. He’s a British institution, a saarf London boy done good. His career spans half a century and in that time he’s been awarded two Academy Awards, the second of which was for his turn 1999’s The Cider House Rules, a gentle coming-of-age story about a young orphan in 1940s Maine. Oh, and it’s a film that touches on abortion. And incest. And drug addiction. I say touches because no-one could ever accuse The Cider House Rules of being a provocative or gritty piece of cinema; instead these topics are looked at through the sepia lens of perpetual fall colours – nothing too vibrant to possibly offend.
As lovable as Caine is, however, he cannot stop me from hating The Cider House Rules. Caine plays Dr Larch, the kindly patriarch of St Clouds Orphanage. In addition to delivering and then caring for unwanted children, Larch has a sideline in helping desperate women by performing hush-hush and highly illegal abortions. Larch sees it as his moral imperative to use his skills to help these women, lest they try to finish the job themselves. Larch’s young protégé, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), sees things a little differently, however. Larch has been training Homer since childhood to one day be his successor so this difference of opinion is a significant one and is eventually the thing that propels Homer off to “see the world” (he only gets as far as an apple orchard in the same state). Although the story stays with Homer, off “finding” himself in the big wide world, Dr Larch remains a constant as Caine provides a voice over for the correspondence the two men share. Larch begs his protégé to come home, while Homer insists that in spite of “training” he is not a doctor and can never take over the “family business”.
The essential problem I have with this film is that it’s twee. In every way. Abortion is a hot button topic in the US, where anti-abortion groups are incredibly vocal in their militancy to overturn Roe v Wade. By setting a film around a kindly, caring (albeit) illegal abortionist and showing what desperate lengths women can be driven to when they are denied their right to this procedure, you would think that this film would enrage the anti-abortion and be a rallying cry for the pro-choice movement. What a shame then that this doesn’t seem to have happened. If anything, this film seems to have fallen under the radar of both groups and frankly it’s easy to see why. In spite of the subject matter, there is nothing meaty (for want of a better term) to sink your teeth into. Yes Larch performs abortions and talks to Homer about the importance of a woman’s right to choose, but it’s all terribly passionless and with none of the emotional turmoil that accompanies abortion, the power of the subject matter gets kind of lost. And because the real focus of the film stays with Homer’s attempts to find his place in the world, the issue itself is sidelined.
Abortion isn’t the only big emotive issue up on screen which is sidelined in favour of Homer’s existential journey. Homer’s flight to the big-wide-world brings him face-to-face with a case of child abuse and incest as we learn that the likeable Mr Rose, the head of the apple-picking crew Homer joins, has been sleeping with his own daughter Rose Rose (this is her actual name) for years. I’m loath to get too spoilerific, but Rose’s discovery of her pregnancy leads to the revelation about her father and subsequently to Homer’s final acceptance of his fate as he does the decent thing and helps Rose to terminate her pregnancy safely. This could be a massively upsetting and emotive storyline, however, there’s something cosy about the way it’s handled. Rose and Mr Rose feel less like characters in their own right, and more like disposable plot points to help Homer to realise the orchard isn’t a safe place and that he must return to Dr Larch.
Arguably then, this film is really very conservative at its centre, because its theme seems to be that St Cloud’s Orphanage or the “home”, if you will, is the only safe place to be. Outside of the orphanage, in the apple orchard (careful, there’s some symbolism there) women are abused, people are murdered and good decent young men return from war as shadows of their former selves. It’s a film about maintaining the status quo and not trying to reach out of your comfort zone. That might be why I hate it so much. Or it might be that I hate the fact that this film has so much potential, but by focusing on Tobey Maguire’s charisma-free performance as Homer, it is all squandered.
I’m not even going to get into how it seems to be set in some idealised version of 1940s America where racism doesn’t exist and a white man can sleep in a room with a group of black men and a black woman without race even being mentioned. Please bear in mind that the civil rights act wasn’t until 1964 and the US in the 1940s was still operating a policy of racial segregation. While I appreciate that Homer was raised in an all-white orphanage and one could argue that if he hadn’t seen anyone of another race before he mightn’t be subject to the same prejudices as the rest of society, why does no-one else ever mention race? I just don’t buy it. It just seems too much of a romanticised view of that time for me.
Caine is absolutely the best thing in the film, in spite of doing the least believable American accent I’ve heard since Vicky in Eastenders. It’s easy to see why the performance won him an Oscar, because the Academy just love the type of conservatism embodied by Cider House (see also Gump, Forrest). Or perhaps it’s because his is the only truly fully formed character? He at least gets to stretch his acting chops with a nice little sub-plot involving ether addiction, but even that is handled with utmost delicacy so as not to offend. He lies on a bed in a sunlit room, listening to a gramophone recording and self-medicating. He may as well be doing yoga for all the offense it’s going to cause. And that’s where the film fails totally for me. It may touch on issues like family, sex, abortion, incest, murder, drug addiction and fraud but they’re all done so gently that it’s impossible to engage with the fact that these are the big questions in life.