Personal affiliation with author Phillip Roth’s 1997 seminal novel of the same name will likely influence the perception of this film adaptation. If, like this critic, you have not read “American Pastoral”, nor have any firm prior knowledge of the text, chances are you’ll exit debutant director Ewan McGregor’s portrait of corrosive Star Spangled Banners with a deep sense of fulfilment. Whilst American Pastoral is by no means perfect, it is without question an audacious and enveloping effort which confirms the Scottish performer-turned-filmmaker as a talent to watch.
Told in flashback, the film details a United States in the heart of the 1960s. McGregor stars as Seymour “Swede” Levov, a successful Jewish American businessman and former high school star athlete. In his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, “The Swede” – as he is fondly recalled – is something of a local legend; an icon and a hero to the people, a person who life clung to in a warm embrace few others. Swede is married to the ravishing Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), a former beauty queen and together they live an idyllic and happy life with their daughter. Merry (Dakota Fanning) suffers with a disarming stutter and as she ages, develops heightened, radical political and social opinions. When she is accused of committing an act of heinous violence, Swede’s safe and pleasant life becomes anything but as their version of ‘The American Dream’ becomes painfully undone.
There has been much talk since the rights to a film adaptation were confirmed that Roth’s novel is simply “unadaptable”; a term people love to throw around like a safety blanket, ensuring memories of a source material cannot become tarnished once a story reaches the silver screen. It is important to remember that literature and cinema are two very different art forms, but share a common goal. As aforementioned, one has not read “American Pastoral” and has little trouble believing the text is a far superior work, but how McGregor has been able to condense something so heavy with historical and sociopolitical themes into a breezy, purposeful 108 minutes is mightily impressive.
Equally, as a first foray into feature filmmaking, this has to be among the riskiest and boldest entries in recent memory. On a personal level, one would much rather see an auteur attempt to reach the highest heights – push the boundaries and deliver something meaningful, complex and multilayered – and not quite achieve it, than simply recycle something easy, boring, without value, and do that expertly. For every error in judgement American Pastoral may make depending on your stance, it achieves something far more purposeful and profound elsewhere. For starters, this is a gorgeously textured work; alive with its setting, so much so you can smell the heady leathers being stitched at Swede’s glove manufacturer. McGregor renders a frame with explicit details, enabling the visuals to feel intimate and populated. It also benefits from some smartly executed set pieces which although quaint in pyrotechnics and stunt work, have an honest rusticity which lends kindly to the 60s Americana.
Meanwhile the collective performances are extremely strong, with the central females turning in the best work. Connelly – one of the most underrated actresses of her generation – is exhilarating as Dawn; a woman carrying the many scars of her past which seemingly poison her relationship with Merry despite few words spoken or actions taken. She bares both a steeliness and sincerity, as if memories of past beauty and glory cling to her like armour and deadweight. Fanning however is the star of the show despite limited screen time, and there is little doubt that whilst she is away, she is sadly missed. Watching her façade fracture under the potency of a corrupt government – America hanging in the balance under Lyndon B. Johnson’s rule – is startling and crushing. Their is a sharpness to her stance in shot; angular and aggressive. She bears a toxicity to her tongue, even when the words refuse to arrive. Fanning enables the spectator to see the cogs turning as we underpin a young person consumed by an identity which promises to do right by the people and the planet, but often settles for wrong.
McGregor has always suffered with inconsistency throughout his lengthy career. For every great performance, there are two or three poor efforts, and accents have never been a strong suit. Thankfully his leading turn in his own film is among the better batch. Swede is a captivating and gravitational presence which we can hang to even when we must trend trepidatiously around the crumbling of his world. In American Pastoral‘s bigger dialogue scenes – ones which sink teeth into thick domestic drama – he delivers and stands ground alongside his co-stars. Whilst arguably the weaker of the central trio, this is still commanding work from an actor who frequently struggles to overcome the hurdle.
It has been widely documented since making the rounds of the festival circuit that with American Pastoral, McGregor has exceeded his reach. That this is a project too big and too important for inexperienced hands to tackle. In this author’s mind, that sends a pretty sour message. There is no disputing that his position as a Hollywood frequent has landed such a ticket, but what he has provided is something deep and provocative; a showcase for textured and difficult narrative film, subtext seeping from every pore. As his directorial debut concludes and the embers of picket fence suburbia swell in air with their thick smoke and ash, you’ll know you’ve just witnessed a tale so worthy of being told.
American Pastoral is out now in select UK cinemas.