Film & TV

American Pastoral: A laudable first film from director Ewan McGregor


American Pastoral is Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, a film adapted from a novel of the same, which won its author Philip Roth the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. A laudable effort for the actor’s first-time foray in filmmaking, no doubt. But it falls short, nonetheless.

American Pastoral tells the story of Seymour “Swede” Levov (played by McGregor), a former high school star athlete who married his high school sweetheart and hometown beauty queen Dawn Dwyer (played by Jennifer Connelly). Together, they have a daughter, Merry (played at different ages by Ocean Nalu James, Hannah Nordberg, and Dakota Fanning), who suffers from a stuttering problem that is merely indicative of a deeper, underlying psychological problem.

As Merry grows older and more mature, she becomes mixed up in a radical political group whose protests against the war in Vietnam escalate from rallies and demonstrations to the actual bombing of the town’s post office and gas station, killing the gas station’s owner in the process. Merry then goes into hiding, and her disappearance sends her family into a downward spiral, causing a strain on her parents’ marriage and sending her mother on a nervous breakdown. Years later, Swede locates his long-lost daughter, who refuses to return to her family as she has taken a vow of non-violence, after being repeatedly raped by her comrades in the underground. To cut a long story short, the Levovs never recover, and Merry makes one final appearance at her father’s funeral.

Being a period piece, maintaining the illusion of this taking place in the past is of particular importance. Production designer Daniel B. Clancy has done a terrific job here, from the set decorations down to the anti-Vietnam posters and pamphlets. Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat did a great job on the musical score, rising and falling with the film’s action that you’d barely even notice it’s there.

In the acting department, Jennifer Connelly delivers a subdued yet powerful performance as Mrs. Dawn Levov, portraying her descent from an alpha female former beauty queen to the crazed wreck of a mother who lost her daughter to forces she could have controlled. But the real star(s) of the show were the Merrys, particularly Ocean Nalu James and Hannah Nordberg, whose performances for the same role merged seamlessly with film veteran Dakota Fanning. James and Nordberg pulled off such convincing stutters, something I would know from experience, as I had a brother who also suffered from terrible stuttering until he was eight years old. That said, Dakota Fanning, despite her talent and experience, sadly could not deliver a believable and convincing stutter.

Ewan McGregor’s directing was good, but it wasn’t as praiseworthy as, say Ben Affleck and Jordan Peele, whose first-time efforts at the helm showed critics that they could do just as well behind the camera as in front of it. But whatever shortcomings this film had can’t all be blamed on McGregor’s directing, as there is only so much a director can do with a mediocre screenplay. And for that, screenwriter John Romano would be partly to blame. This isn’t Romano’s first attempt at adapting a novel to the big screen, having written the screenplay for The Lincoln Lawyer and Nicholas Sparks’s Nights of Rodanthe, but American Pastoral is his first adaptation of this caliber, so transposing the story from the page to a roughly two-hour drama is no easy feat.

As any screenwriter would attest to, pulling off an adaptation can be very tricky. What works on the page is not guaranteed to work as a screenplay. First, we have time constraints. We hardly felt the alpha-ness of Swede and Dawn, who were supposed to be town’s power couple, being the star high school athlete and beauty queen, respectively. This power couple dynamic was also supposedly what caused Merry’s inferiority complex, having had to constantly struggle living under her mother’s perfect shadow, and even having to compete with her own mother for her father’s attention. I haven’t read the novel, but I am pretty sure this detail was important, and sadly I didn’t feel it in the film.

Some of the characters could also have been merged in adaptation, or actually taken out altogether. The characters of the writer Nathan Zuckerman (played by David Strathairn) and the the Swede’s older brother Jerry Levov (played by Rupert Evans) were, in my opinion, quite unnecessary. Their main purpose was as a starting point to the narrative, because the novel was narrated by Jerry Levov to Zuckerman. But if this was adapted as a straight-up story of Seymour Levov and the deterioration of his perfect family, then his brother Jerry would’ve been unnecessary, as would the character of Nathan Zuckerman.

All in all, this is a laudable effort by Ewan McGregor, and if critics had their way, they would probably lobby for the end of McGregor’s directing career. But he shouldn’t be fazed by the negative reviews; neither should he be discouraged by the negative returns in the box office. Ewan McGregor can speak the cinematic language fluently, and American Pastoral wasn’t a terrible film. It may not have been a great first film, but it should not definitely be his last.

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American Pastoral is now showing in cinemas.

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