"IF YOU'VE SEEN AN ABBA video ever, I have directed it," Lasse Hallstrom tells me, engagingly free of irony. I choke on my glee for a second and mention the ABBA anthem, "Mama Mia," displaying my own shortcomings in the irony department.

"Have you seen it?" he asks. "It's a lot of profiles...."

Have I seen the "Mama Mia" video? The opportunity to meet the creator of that masterwork was a dream (I never knew I had) come true.

A man who can shake off the spell of Frida and Agnetha with nary a backward glance is someone who can admire the quirks which life so freely offers the open-minded, and Hallstrom's cinematic output matches his affection for eccentricity. He'd been working in Swedish film and television for years when the success of My Life as a Dog, with its warm acceptance of the confusions of childhood, made him a name in international film circles. Since then, he's made a series of English-language films -- including Once Around, his underrated American debut, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape -- that are valentines to the kind of gray areas and multifaceted characters from which most Hollywood product runs screaming.

"Mostly it has to be a character-driven story," Hallstrom says of his choices. "I read many scripts that are plot-driven, that sacrifice character to plot. When I'm really intrigued is when I read about characters' irrational behavior that rings absolutely true and recognizable, [when] I find moments that I suspect the audience will recognize, but they don't often talk to each other about."

Hallstrom's understanding that our decisions are hardly ever black or white makes him a keen choice for director of his latest project, an adaptation of John Irving's The Cider House Rules. Though A Prayer for Owen Meany (which was filmed as the appalling Simon Birch a year ago) is usually cited as the favorite of Irving fans, Cider House may be the greater feat. A sprawling homage to David Copperfield, the story charts the maturation of beloved orphan Homer Wells, who learns about the crushing ambiguities of living from several unique characters, among them the paternal Dr. Wilbur Larch, the orphanage director who doubles as the town's clandestine, caring abortionist. It's unusual for a major film release to touch on the subject of abortion, let alone with the plainspoken grace that Hallstrom and Irving, adapting his own work, bring to the material.

"[John Irving] had a couple more scenes, a couple of speeches that were sort of bordering on the preachy," the director says, in answer to my question concerning how he chose to handle the delicate abortion issue. "[I thought] we shouldn't back away from it, but again, we shouldn't be didactic."

Though his adaptation has integrity, it is unable to envelop us with the dazzling juggling of years and characters that makes the book such a luminous accomplishment, and this limited scope is a weakness that mars an otherwise touching film. Without that wide-ranging freedom -- and especially without Melanie, a major player in the novel who serves as a touchstone to Homer's inner life -- the Cider House narrative feels a little flat, and loses some of its epic span. The humane heart of the book, however, still beats strongly in the film; it's overflowing with heartbreaking glances and hesitant declarations of love. Hallstrom's sure hand captures subtle discoveries from the wonderful ensemble: a beatific Tobey Maguire, a striking debut from singer Erykah Badu, Michael Caine in his best work in years, and a devastating turn from Delroy Lindo as the mysterious migrant worker Mr. Rose.

"There's so much sentiment in the story, so the risk of getting sentimental is obviously there," Hallstrom ponders. "I don't know if I succeeded in avoiding it, but we tried.... [I wanted] to be as truthful as possible in the performances... and if I do that and I still get the audience without having to manipulate, then I have succeeded."

Life, in Hallstrom's world, is a far more magnificent experiment than is seen in typical commercial cinema, and he's done that world justice in Cider House.

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