American Pastoral (2016, Ewan McGregor) Review
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning
American Pastoral adapts Roth’s famously known novel of the same name. It follows the life of Seymore “Swede” Levov, a Jewish man in Newark who seems to be living a perfect life. He has a beauty queen bride (Jennifer Connelly) and he has inherited his father’s glove factory. His seemingly picture-perfect life falls apart as his teenage daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) gets involved in a rebellion of counterculture, the young woman finding ways to protest against the war on discrimination as the 60s roll around.
The plot beings properly with Merry disappearing and being accused of terrorism in their town. The film mainly focuses on Swede’s search to find his daughter, while also trying to save his wife’s slow descent into depression and madness. Having not read the book, it’s difficult to compare the two mediums, so I’ll judge this film as a standalone. The film seems to tackle about the theme of how the American dream is not as perfect as it seems. They were recently heroes, returning from a global war as conceived by the Greatest Generation, but the idea of being a “hero” is not as simple as they thought it was. Settling into the comfort of their middle class lives after, they are faced with multiple dilemmas as the war on counterculture rises, significantly affecting their psychological image of themselves as they wonder if and how they must act as they were heroes in the past.
It’s a worthy enough theme, but the film never really manages to reach to that point of totally tackling the entire subject matter. This is my deduction on why critics are claiming this adaptation to lose a lot from Roth’s novel. This film felt oversimplified to the point where A just causes B, losing all of the period details and historical context which, I’m guessing, is in the novel. Likewise, the film streamlines the narrative, making the characters seem less human and making the entire picture look like a simple parable on how this war on counterculture ruined and drastically changed America. Simplification is a necessary part of adaptation, but the way it was done here felt like it harmed the overall message and never really tackled what the book wanted to tackle. It is a noble effort to adapt something so complex historically, but it never reached their ambitions.
The film is directed by Ewan McGregor, and as a directorial debut, this was actually a decent one. He mainly plays the scenes straight, keeping the focus entirely on the performances. The cast is technically excellent, but since the screenplay suffered from a lot of oversimplification, they weren’t able to fully embody the complexity of these characters. As a drama, this film is extremely compelling. Dakota Fanning’s stuttering may sometimes feel unnatural and obviously acted, but her relationship with her father felt genuine and passionately acted by McGregor and Fanning. Connelly is good as a side character descending into madness, but it would’ve been nice seeing more scenes from her. As a historical picture, however, it felt incomplete, removing many vital parts of that time period, reducing the narrative into something too simple.
I do appreciate McGregor’s efforts into making American Pastoral. He does seem to have a lot of genuine affection for the material, and it’s nice to aim high. To try to fit everything into a watchable form. Sadly, it doesn’t fully work, the film missing the bigger picture on what’s important and focusing more on a drama between a father and his daughter. One may view this film for a compelling drama with excellent performances, but for what it set out to do, it lost sight of its goal and went into the opposite direction.
Watched April 2017