American Pastoral, 2016.
Directed by Ewan McGregor.
Starring Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Peter Riegart, Rupert Evans, Uzo Aduba, Rita Cohen and David Strathairn.
In 1968, a hardworking man, who’s been a staple in his quaint community for years, watches his seemingly perfect middle class life fall apart as his daughter’s new radical political affiliation threatens to destroy their family.
The release of a film like American Pastoral at this time of political crisis and with Trump imminently coming to power and harking on about the golden age of the American Dream it is fitting and also a cautionary tale. Philip Roth’s seminal novel is adapted somewhat haphazardly but still has a lot of ideas and themes that are relevant today.
The multiple narrative styles of Roth’s novel has been trimmed down and we begin with Nathan Zuckerman (Strathairn) attending his 45th high school reunion and meeting up with an old pal Jerry Levov (Evans in some questionable ageing makeup). They reminisce about the glory days of their “Kennedy” Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov (McGregor). We then get a flashback that shows how Swede’s perfect home life and American Dream became shattered after his daughter does something horrifying and vanishes. Trimming down the narrative framework makes the film easy to understand but it also makes it flat and slightly dull to watch. Watching Swede’s life fall apart is uneasy to watch and at times heart breaking; but as a viewer I felt removed from the characters on screen and at times it was difficult to empathise with them.
Marking his directorial debut, McGregor makes a solid effort in his direction but there are only a couple of scenes that stands out in the whole film. It’s a shame that Roth’s work is so difficult to adapt as with a simpler story we might have seen more promise from him. The tonal shifts are all over the place and we never get to the hearts of these characters. The passing of time is marked by the use of stock news footage of Watergate, Woodstock et al. It ticks the boxes but it’s a way of telling a story that we’ve seen so many times before.
On the acting front we fair slightly better. McGregor as Swede is engaging and you do feel for him. His accent does go off the rail at times but he carries the film well. Connelly as Swede’s wife Dawn has a couple of great scenes but other than that her character isn’t explored that much. Fanning as the rebellious daughter Merry is a great performance. Suffering from a stutter throughout and playing the radical politico is something she’s good at. Whilst it does seem odd that Fanning is still playing teenagers, it is a formula that works.
American Pastoral isn’t a disaster but it’s a long way from perfect. At times it’s dull and it raises a lot of issues but never explores any of them fully. Connelly’s character suffers a mental breakdown but we see her crying in one scene and then the next she’s walking naked in Swede’s office wearing nothing but her beauty pageant sash. Whilst you can see why these parts of the book have been included, without the context it seems bizarre. An uncomfortable sex scene is also thrown in and whilst it’s intense to watch, it feels like it’s been misplaced.
McGregor has clearly shown potential for directing; I only hope that his next effort is bolder and packs more of a punch.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★