American Pastoral


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

American Pastoral
"McGregor's character paradoxically gets too much and not enough. Swede feels clogged with sentiment for his daughter, with little room for other emotions."

There's an unfortunate whiff Truman Show fakery about Ewan McGregor's first foray into directing, which suffers from many of the similar problems that plagued Meg Ryan's debut Ithaca last year - only here, they are much more acute. The story, based on the novel by Philip Roth, is a sweeping tale of America from the Forties to the Seventies as seen through the eyes of a single family, whose family businessman father watches as his daughter becomes radicalised and then get involved with domestic terrorism.

The idea of children being drawn into violence as a solution is at least as pertinent now as it was then but John Romano's screenplay never gets beyond skimming the surface of the story, gliding over the emotions that it should be delving into in order to reach the next 'event'.

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McGregor stars in the central role of Jewish glove maker Seymour 'Swede' Levov, a man who, we learn in a framing high school reunion story, seemed in his youth to have been blessed with all the gifts, including sporting prowess, a (gentile) beauty queen bride and a successful business, run by his father, just waiting for him to be ready for it.That's how his former classmate Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) remembers him anyway, so he is shocked to learn from Swede’s brother Jerry (Rupert Evans) that the once golden boy has died.

With stage set, the film spins into flashback to show Swede living the equivalent of the American Dream - which, as can only happen in fiction, encompasses both town manufacturing and countryside farm living. The only vague crimp in the lives of he and his wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) is the fact that their daughter Merry (played impressively in childhood by Ocean James and Hannah Nordberg) has a pronounced stutter. As Merry (now played by Dakota Fanning) becomes a young woman, she is increasingly obsessed with the Vietnam War and, finding companionship with a cabal of friends in New York City, rushes towards a watershed moment that will see her flee the life she has known, detonating an emotional bomb at the heart of her parents' lives.

McGregor's character paradoxically gets too much and not enough. Swede feels clogged with sentiment for his daughter, with little room for other emotions. Dawn, meanwhile - through no fault of Connelly's - is reduced to histrionics with no backbone, so that we can see the end result of her psychological trauma without ever getting a sense of what lies beneath. Part of the problem is the film's look. In early scenes smoothing is used to give the older cast the appearance of younger people and there is a similar glossiness to the whole feel of the film, as though everything has been newly minted rather than lived in.

This air of unreality only serves to further undermine the emotional eddy and flow, so that as Fanning delivered what should have been a heartfelt speech to the father who has been hunting her for years, several people in the cinema I saw this in got a fit of the giggles. Romano also insists on putting little flags in the script, as though he doesn't trust the audience to understand, so when a borderline laughable conversation Swede has with a young unstable firebrand Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) comes along, it already carries far too much weight, meaning that when the script loops back to it later, the pay-off falls flat.

The music cues are also of the in-your-face variety, such as Buffalo Springfield's over-used For What Its Worth, over scenes of real-life news footage, which has the feeling of being dumped into the film rather than organically woven in.

What should be a bristling tension between extremism and moderation, classes and races - hinted at in the film's best scenes between Swede and his factory secretary (Uzo Aduba) - is all too often sacrificed in favour of the much less interesting, though simpler to portray, father/daughter issues. McGregor, like many actors, has no problem getting performances from his cast but the canvas here would be a big one to fill even for an experienced director and there is no hiding place for his inexperience in terms of narrative flow and creative framing. He needs to think smaller.

Reviewed on: 25 Oct 2016
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American Pastoral packshot
Seymour “Swede” Levov, a once legendary high school athlete, is now a successful businessman married to Dawn, a former beauty queen. But turmoil brews beneath the polished veneer of Swede’s life.
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Director: Ewan McGregor

Writer: John Romano, based on the novel by Philip Roth

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Connelly, Uzo Aduba, David Strathairn, Rupert Evans, Valorie Curry, Peter Riegert, Hannah Nordberg, Mark Hildreth, Emily Peachey, Ocean James, Julia Silverman, David Whalen

Year: 2016

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


SSFF 2016

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