I am not sure why critics, or at least many of them, have seemed to go after Ewan McGregor’s very fine directorial debut American Pastoral since its debut last month at the Toronto Film Festival. It is baffling to me that a complex and challenging work like this sterling adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer-winning novel would not make more of an impact. I guess I am in the critical minority here, but I find the film, in which McGregor also stars, to be a riveting and urgent motion picture experience that should have audiences talking long after they leave the theater. The entire cast, which also includes Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning and David Strathairn, is superb in a powerful and important film about what keeps us together — and what tears us apart.
As I say in my video review above, what McGregor and screenwriter John Romano have accomplished is not an easy task. But this remains — along with Indignation, another Roth adaptation earlier this year — to be one of the most successful transfers to screen of any of the author’s impressive list of books. The story, which begins in the 1950s, centers on what appears to be the idyllic relationship between a high school jock-hero known as The Swede (McGregor) and the popular beauty queen Dawn (Connelly) he marries. Once daughter Merry is born, it appears they are living the perfect family life — that is until Merry becomes a troubled teen (Fanning takes over the role at this point) and is radicalized by the turbulent ’60s and the Vietnam War. She is accused of participating in the bombing of a local post office and store, and the death of the man who runs it. She disappears, going underground, shattering her parents, whose lives will never be the same. Ultimately this is a father-daughter story with the close bond between the two becoming the reason The Swede won’t give up in his quest to get her back — a quest that takes surprising twists and turns in this period story that still has great resonance today.
McGregor, who took the directing reins over the course of the project’s long development period, ably navigates the tricky course of this tale while also delivering an effective performance in the lead role. Connelly is terrific as usual as the wife and mother whose ideal of a perfect life is thrown to the side by events she couldn’t control. Fanning is the real revelation here in a role like she has never had before, and she brings it home with great depth and subtlety. The supporting cast including Strathairn as a former classmate of The Swede who narrates the story, and a lively Peter Riegert as Dawn’s father, are all excellent. Production credits on this film are exceptionally strong as well.
Roth has proven in the past with movies like Portnoy’s Complaint that his novels are not all that easy to transfer to the screen. This time they got it right, and I hope time will acknowledge that. Producers are Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi for Lakeshore Entertainment. Lionsgate distributed the film which opened over the weekend.
Do you plan to see American Pastoral? Let us know what you think.