Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning
Director: Ewan McGregor
Running Time: 108 mins
Synopsis: Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov (McGregor) is a once well renowned high school athlete, now a successful businessman married to a former beauty queen (Connelly). As they attempt to raise their daughter (Fanning) it becomes evident that she is becoming increasingly troubled. After a shocking moment of violence, of which his daughter is accused of, she goes on the run.
You’ve got to admire Ewan McGregor’s balls! No he hasn’t taken to baring all, as per his regular trousers down roles in Trainspotting, Velvet Goldmine et al, but rather a metaphorical courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Here those odds are making his directorial debut an adaptation of Phillip Roth’s ‘unfilmable’ novel American Pastoral. Numerous directors have come and gone, finding a way to adapt something as fierce and uncompromising has got the better of many, but after years of begging McGregor was given the chance. Sadly it is a complete and utter folly, although how much we can lay at his feet is open to question.
Book-ended by a quite frankly ridiculous set of scenes involving David Strathairn as a friend of Ewan McGregor’s brother from high school. Meeting at a high school reunion in present day, they awkwardly chat about the once legendary Seymour Levov, and the tragedy of his life is told. I’m not entirely sure why the film is framed with these moments. Attempting to treat this like an grand scale parable passed down like an old fable to each generation is a noble idea, but the execution here is haphazard. Strathairn’s character is two dimensional and nothing more than a mouthpiece to introduce the film. A final epilogue moment is told through his eyes for no apparent reason.
As we flash back to 50s America, we hone in on ‘The Swede,’ as Seymour is known, asking his father to agree to let him marry Connelly’s former beauty queen. Peter Riegert makes an impression as Seymour’s father, candid, funny and the most human of the frankly rather robotic main cast. Jumping forward through the arrival of their first child; Merry, who suffers from a crippling stutter. Cute as a button but with an unexpected connection to her father. A scene in a car with them is both uncomfortable and highly complex, it is one of the more interesting tangents the film takes but sadly does very little with it. Growing into the unmistakable shape of Dakota Fanning, and it starts to become evident that this is one very troubled girl.
More than just a obnoxious teenage girl, she has a unquenchable fire to protest against the currently raging Vietnam War (the response to which is seen in newsreel footage laced throughout the film) but finds herself hampered by her fathers almost sickening lack of backbone. Fanning gives a decent performance but struggles to make her anything more than a selfish droning hippy type. The relationship between her and McGregor is the strongest aspect, leading to some almost tear inducing scenes towards the end.
McGregor has taken on two challenges here, not just directing this tough novel, but starring as the lead character. A man quintessentially good but not willing to accept that he may have lost his daughter for good. He plays it with very little fire, you’re just waiting for the inevitable explosion but it never really comes, save a few brief bursts. Similar to his direction he is very restrained when he should be more raging, he becomes more frustrating to watch as events progress. The accent is sort of hit and miss too.
The final piece of this triangle is Jennifer Connelly’s Dawn. Constantly butting heads with her daughter, she is very much in the peripheral of things to begin with. But as the evidence mounts that her daughter may have committed this terrible act of revolution, and she in turn goes missing, Dawn’s mental well-being begins to fragment. Due to the abridged running time, though, this is never fully delved into with conviction thus her big moment of breakdown (involving nudity and singing publicly) feels unearned and lacks power. It’s all a little funny, and I can’t imagine that was McGregor’s intention. Come the ending she once again becomes a footnote in the overall plot, leaving all the earlier hand-wringing emotions feeling pointless.
Key among the flaws here, and I touched on this earlier, is the running time. An epic sized novel spanning decades has been adapted into a scant 108 mins. What’s worse is even with that relatively small duration the film still drags. Dull and listless, with only scant moments of life, turns the whole endeavour into quite a slog. American Pastoral may actually have worked better as a limited series. Spread over, say 8/10 episodes, time could’ve been spent to develop these characters more thoroughly, therefore giving the later events much needed power. By squeezing it into a feature length one off you rob the story of its nuance and insight.
The direction is stately, full of basic camera moves, and has no real personality. At this point I don’t know whether to completely blame McGregor, he mounts a couple of impressive moments (the silence before the shocking violence that sets the plot in motion is effective) but you feel an almost palpable fear on his part to really cut loose. The stagnant script by John Romano doesn’t help either. Production design is solid, although this is a softly lit handsome 50s that we’ve seen countless times before.
My biggest complaint , though, is I just don’t know who this is for. It just sort of sits there with no personality to cling to. Is it an outraged look at the inability to make a difference, the challenges of raising a child or the notion that the American Dream is simply a warped idea that isn’t really possible despite outward appearances? It may be all of them but come the end of this American snoozefest I didn’t really care.
Verdict: Although made with earnest intentions, Ewan McGregor strikes out with a film that is flat, uninspired and lacking in any real emotion. Calling Phillip Roth’s novel ‘unadaptable’ has proven to be remarkably prescient.