TIFF Review: 'American Pastoral'

American Pastoral
(USA, 126 min.)
Dir. Ewan McGregor, Writ. John Romano
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Uzo Aduba, Molly Parker, Valorie Durry, David Strathairn
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF

Without wanting to sound like a hipster, American Pastoral is probably a much better film if one hasn't read the book. The film marks an admirable directorial debut for actor Ewan McGregor, who also stars as Seymour 'The Swede' Levov, considering the adaptation offers a daunting task. The weight of the film falls on screenwriter John Romano (The Lincoln Lawyer), who makes an appreciable effort at condensing the 400-odd pages of Roth's thick prose, which meditates profoundly on the fallacy of the American dream in rambling passages that are inextricable from its power, but the burden of adapting Philip Roth's epic American tragedy is too heavy to bare. Some major changes simplify the adaptation too much and strip American Pastoral of its complexity.  This film misses a great an opportunity, but it demands polite admiration for the effort.

McGregor fares better as an actor, as the Swede is a mythical figure whose earnest pursuit of the American dream haunts the film.  An old high school colleague, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), learns the sad saga of Seymour at a high school reunion in which Levov's brother recounts the downfall of the Swede, Bridges of Madison County style. The adaptation smartly nixes the one-hundred or so pages it takes to get to the chase as Nathan finds himself slowly teased into learning the Swede's secret. Nathan's voiceover recedes early and American Pastoral fortunately sheds its literary restrictions as it transitions to the story of the Swede, his lovely and suffocated wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and their stuttering and rebellious daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning).

Romano's screenplay unfolds the Swede's tale in linear fashion, as opposed to fractured timeline of Roth's novel. It builds to Merry's radical bombing of the local post office as the turning point for America's innocence, rather than using the event as a hinge around which to consider the shards of the Swede's fractured dream. American Pastoral works fairly well as a straight line but an early deviation from the book is bound to confound viewers and foreshadows the problems ahead.

This move comes with the fateful kiss between the Swede and his prepubescent daughter. The Swede recalls a troubling episode in which he soothed Merry's stammering lips by laying a kiss on her-- just like he would her mommy. The incestuous lip-lock haunts Seymour until his death and leaves him forever troubled by his potential for corrupting and spurning his daughter. This kiss never happens in the film, though.  Seymour resists temptation.

Without the kiss, American Pastoral lets Seymour off the hook. He’s a purebred, all-American male—a model of the nation’s idealism and innocence. His only fault is his all-consuming belief that a man can find success in America by working hard and serving his family. He gets a raw deal in his rotten daughter, sure, but the adaptation sanitises its protagonist and, in the process, flattens the complexity of the character’s idealism and unwavering belief that he does everything right in his life.

The erasure of the kiss summarises the adaptation as a whole as Romano smooths out all the edges of Roth’s novel. The significant tensions between Catholic conservatism and Seymour’s Jewish roots are over and done with in one key altercation between Dawn and the Swede’s father (a scene-stealing Peter Riegert) that Romano moves from the end of the book to the begging. The Swede’s affair with Merry’s speech therapist (an effective Molly Parker, who also appears in this year’s Weirdos) is erased. This squeaky-clean Seymour actually aids the earnestness of McGregor’s performance, but there’s little underlying conflict in American Pastoral. Rather than explode the hope of a nation, poor little Merry blows up a family of three.

The supporting cast brings a lot to the film with roles that have a lot of potential. Fanning is excellent in a notably abbreviated presence as Merry. (Although a new scene at the end of the film rewrites the character in a manner that’s bound to divide fans of the book.) She handles Merry’s stuttering sensitively and furiously, playing into the competing ideas that Merry’s speech impediment could be either psychological or self-made. Connelly has a few great moments to shine and American Pastoral would be even more dynamic if McGregor favoured more closes-ups to increase the emotional intensity between the Swede and Dawn. The director’s fondness for medium shots and long shots conveys the distance between them, but the passion between Mr. and Mrs. American isn’t too palpable. Uzo Aduba is a welcome presence as the Swede’s devoted secretary while newcomer Valorie Curry is a little firecracker as a seedy radical who tempts the Swede. She’s a promising talent.

McGregor creates the time and place of American Pastoral with a fine eye for the settings of rural America in the age of Mad Men. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe offers some powerful compositions, especially in the first act as the film favours golden-toned pastoral innocence before America darkens in the fall of the second act. There’s ample promise for a future behind the camera for McGregor, but the expectations and shortcomings burdened on American Pastoral are too much for even a seasoned filmmaker to overcome. One can’t do justice to the novel when the adaptation itself is just a lesser version of its source.

TIFF runs Sept. 8-18.
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