One wonders why Ewan McGregor decided to make his directorial debut with American Pastoral. The book by Philip Roth is sometimes considered to be ‘The Great American Novel’, and the film faces the common challenge of trying to adapt an already lauded piece of art. The novel is impressive in the breadth of themes it addresses, and Roth’s prose has come in for particular praise – something that is especially hard to translate to the big screen. It may therefore not be a surprise to learn that, while the film succeeds in touching on the novel's major themes and is undoubtedly an engaging watch, it feels rather like it’s skimming the surface.
American Pastoral concerns itself with the life of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, something of an all-American hero. After a legendary sporting career in high school and a spell in the Marines, he seems to have it all: a former beauty queen for a wife, and an idyllic homestead in the New Jersey suburbs. Yet this all changes with the arrival of the Vietnam War, and the turbulence that accompanied it in the late 1960s. Dealing with an increasingly radicalised daughter, Swede struggles to hold firm as the world changes around him.
The film does well to convey the general sense of anxiety and threat felt by much of middle America in the period. Contemporary footage of street violence and student radicals is used to good effect, and the prolonged scene where Swede and one of his workers hold fort in their factory more than pays its way in tension.
McGregor gives a strong performance throughout as the protagonist – in turns sympathetic and pathetic. His smile always feels rather forced, just hinting at the turmoil he is trying to cover-up. Jennifer Connelly, too, does a good job as his wife Dawn, a woman both celebrated and oppressed by her status as former Miss New Jersey.
Early on the film is at pains to set out its thematic concerns. While providing essential context for what follows, it feels a little too ‘on the nose’. Old footage of returning GIs and a long, drawn-out shot of the flag: American! Bright, expansive shots of the family’s field and cows: Pastoral!
Indeed, subtlety is not one of the film’s strengths. Nowhere is this truer than in the choice of music. When Swede’s daughter Merry starts to get caught up in the anti-war movement, Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ strikes up. One can’t help thinking it would have been more effective had that same song not been used to convey the upheavals of the Vietnam War countless times before.
The same is true for a pivotal moment when Swede meets one of Merry’s acolytes. Of course we only know it’s a tense, dramatic scene because some tense, dramatic music starts playing in the background. American Pastoral doesn’t seem to think very much of its viewers.
The film also struggles to make effective use of Roth’s writing. His reputation seems to loom large, as both the opening and closing have the narrator reading long passages of prose, but it feels clunky. After searching her room for links to a bombing, the remark that Swede’s little girl is “maybe not so little anymore” is positively groan-worthy.
American Pastoral is not a bad film; it almost serves a purpose in providing a useful précis of the novel. But faced with the challenge of trying to cram so much into what is a relatively brief film, it inevitably ends up being both heavy-handed and a little superficial
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