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Review: American Pastoral


Preposterous comments about big stars and their hitch to transition behind the camera simply don’t apply to American Pastoral. Despite ultimately being his baby, it’d be too easy to blame the commander in chief for the shortcomings of this film adaptation.

On the contrary, first time director Ewan McGregor needs to be acknowledged for his gutsy choice to tackle one of American literature’s most revered masterpieces as his filmmaking debut. Some will see that as a further confirmation of an actor’s ego, especially since he also stars in the leading role, but the same people tend to forget that an artist with the experience and the body of work of Mr. McGregor, who has worked with some amazing filmmakers over the course of his illustrious career, might’ve learned a thing or two about filmmaking along the way. 

I’m not an American literature scholar but I surely am a huge fan of Philip Roth and his Pulitzer Prize winning novel. That’s why it’s fair to make a distinction between the script adaptation by John Romano and McGregor’s directorial work but also, in general, American Pastoral as a piece of filmmaking.

This doesn’t mean trying to turn the poor screenwriter into the scapegoat either – I’m an aspiring one myself and I know well how hard, underrated and mostly thankless that job is. For starters, the truth of the matter is that adapting Roth for the screen isn’t necessarily a walk in the park and the attempts made so far haven’t exactly spurred critical acclaim or box office success, no matter the level of talent involved – The Human Stain anyone?

That said, American Pastoral, is most likely one of the least adaptation-friendly amongst the celebrated author’s novels. Set in one of the most delicate and transitional periods in American and world history – the Vietnam war – spanning across various decades, the book is structured almost like a Matryoshka with new levels that keep popping out when you least expect it. This is a dense literary work whose elegiac quality is so peculiar and complex, probably more so than any other of Roth’s novels, that you simply have a hard time breathing whilst turning the pages.

The story follows Jewish family man Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor), a former high school athlete sensation, who has taken over his father’s successful gloves factory business, has married former Miss New Jersey and Irish Catholic beauty Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and the couple now live in an idyllic countryside estate, away from the city, where Dawn raises their daughter Merry and takes care of cows.

Their apparent perfect existence of a typical wealthy, WASP, all American family is however bound to get dramatically turned upside down when Merry turns into an anti Vietnam war rebellious teenager (Dakota Fanning) who despises the President and the system and gets swallowed into the social and political turmoil that will change the fabric of American culture forever.

The Levovs get a taste of things to come as little girl Merry (impressive newcomer Hannah Nordberg) shows signs of a peculiar intelligence, curiosity and sensibility and yet is affected by an annoying stutter that seems to be the spot in an otherwise immaculate happy life. When the child’s psychologist expresses the opinion that Merry is using the stutter as a mechanism to cope with such overwhelming perfection, the couple reacts in disbelief and the naïve Swede tries to convince himself there must be a physiological issue that will heal in time.

Yet, things begin to look different in his mind as teenage Merry, who has developed a conflicting relationship with her mother whilst growing up, now acts likes she has also lost any respect for the man who used to be her daddy dearest. One weekend the girl delays her return home from New York without letting her parents know and that’s when the usually seraphic Swede loses his cool and grounds her. Merry in fact has started hanging out with politically involved people his parents know nothing about and the situation starts worrying them.

When trying to talk some sense into her and win back her sympathy, Swede tells his daughter she should bring the war home in order to feel like she’s doing something to stop it. By that he obviously means a peaceful protest that would stand out in their small town where nothing ever happens. He’s trying to connect with her whilst trying to make sure she doesn’t go off to New York and get involved in some trouble.

When Merry disappears after being accused of committing a violent act of domestic terrorism, Swede’s world collapses and he dedicates himself to finding his daughter and pick up the pieces of his family. What he discovers changes their lives forever and for the first time, Swede finally opens his eyes about how all he has built or at least he thinks he has built, the eponymous American dream, is just a mere illusion.

At the core, American Pastoral is a family drama about a father-daughter relationship set against a peculiar backdrop of American history. The filmmakers have clearly focused on that aspect, yet the socio-political commentary the novel is pregnant with is an integral part of the story and its implications go deeper than the film seems to convey.

The adaptation inevitably has to rework the complex structure of the book although it maintains the framing device of author Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), a former schoolmate of the Swede’s younger brother Jerry (Rupert Evans), telling the story that he learns for the first time when he meets Jerry at a high school reunion. Nathan used to be one of the many kids who adored and idolised the Swede during his golden age as a high school star athlete, that’s why his point of view on what went down is rather compelling.

The film however streamlines his role too much and like several other elements, it feels like the impact of the novel’s gut-wrenching themes is watered down in order to fit into just under two-hours running time. The cast is impeccable and McGregor knows well how to work with them, given his own experience in the field. His visual work is simple but effective and the production design does justice to the period. Yet it feels like something is missing and it’s not about inevitable narrative cuts but more about capturing the emotional core of what’s at stake.

All in all this is a solid directorial debut and those who are not the least acquainted with the source material will probably be less affected by its limitations. Yet I believe they will also feel compelled to pick up the novel and realise there’s much more to this poignant piece of literature and most importantly will be stunned by how relevant this story still is to the current face of America.


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