Growing up as a voracious reader, there was a time when I would read pretty much any book I could get my hands on, regardless of genre. My tastes have developed and become a bit more insular now, which is frankly quite sad, because it means I’m far less likely to pick up a random book and enjoy it these days. That’s how I came across The Road to Welville as a teenager – I read the book first, and was instantly charmed by the story and the characters. And when I finally got my hands on the film, I was not disappointed.
It’s the story of a turn-of-the-century health sanatorium run by one Dr John Harvey Kellogg, he of the breakfast cereal fame. A man of science and staunch vegetarian, he ran the health spa with one aim in mind – the promotion of what he considered to be a clean and healthy lifestyle. Away with alcohol! Down with red meat! And don’t even think about any of the other carnal pleasures, you dirty boy. No, it’s vegetables and electrical treatments and yoghurt enemas all round. He was an odd man.
Anthony Hopkins plays Dr Kellogg with a wonderful glint in his eye, having a whale of a time in the eccentric role. From his first appearance, you can tell that while Dr Kellogg is no Hannibal, it’s certainly a role to remember:
“A sausage is an indigestible balloon of decayed meat riddled with tuberculosis – eat it and die!”
The rest of the cast do an admirable job too, though they’re acted off the screen whenever Hopkins appears. That’s just fine, though, because such a strange character requires a larger than life performance, so it fits nicely. John Cusack is especially good as a naive young huckster hoping to start his own breakfast cereal empire riding on Kellogg’s coattails. Matthew Broderick’s character is the fish-out-of-water, the eyes of the audience, the sane man in the mad world, etc.
The plot is a bit on the thin side, as really it’s just an excuse to explore the strange setting and kooky characters – but it’s all done with a gentle charm that’s really quite endearing. It never comes across as false or twee or quirky for the sake of quirkiness. It’s a film about the cult of personality, about our need to conform and to rally around symbols and people who give us purpose, about the intersection between scientific advancement and absurd hoaxery. The Kellogg devotees are almost a cult; you’d be forgiven for thinking that Kellogg would be passing round the Kool-Aid by the end of the film (though he’d never poison his followers with anything so insidiously evil as sugar, no sir!).
It’s very difficult to get hold of on DVD for some reason – I keep checking eBay and it’s always just out of the price range I’ll normally pay for a DVD. It’s well worth keeping an eye out for and acquiring if you get the chance. You’ll never look at yoghurt the same way again.