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TIFF Review: American Pastoral

American Pastoral

Adapted from Philip Roth’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, American Pastoral was always going to be an ambitious project, let alone a wise project for a directorial debut. Yet, this is the challenge that Ewan McGregor was faced with his first feature film. Roth’s stories have only been now adapted to the screen eight times to mixed reviews. Unfortunately American Pastoral won’t stop this trend.

The plot centres on what appears to be the idyllic American Family. There’s Swede (Ewan McGregor, also starring), a successful businessman taking over his father’s (Peter Riegert) glove making business. His wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) is a former beauty queen who spend her days now tending to her cows. Together they have a daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning), who suffers with a serious stutter. As she grows up, Merry begins to demonstrate strong political views against the Vietnam War and and as a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement. While her parents support her viewpoints, she falls in with a group that pushes her to the point of extremism and terrorism. The loss of their daughter to these radicalized actions is the basis of this emotional drama.

There are parts of this drama that do in fact work, and work well on screen, thanks in large part to the performances of Fanning and McGregor, who translate the father/daughter dynamic well. But, while the film starts off fairly strong in trying to establish this family relationship, it quickly falters with the complexity that follows. I can’t help thinking the source material would have been better adapted as a mini series, where the story, relationships and characters could have been explored in more depth. They likely then would have also been able to spend more time with Uzo Aduba‘s character as well, as she is unfortunately under-utilized here.

McGregor does have a promising eye however for directing – his idyllic family lit with bright, beautiful landscapes, only to have dark, muted tones overtake with the bleak outlook for Merry.  If he dabbles behind the camera again, perhaps choosing something not quite so intimidating, and more inspiring, may serve him well.  A film spanning four decades has many different facets and periods to entertain and McGregor does at least an adequate job of reflecting these, even if through a few too many cliches. Perhaps a more experienced director may have had more luck, but whether American Pastoral was ever really meant for the big screen in the first place is really the question. For a story that should truly resonate especially with current political realities, it just lacks the emotional punch and development it set out to achieve.


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