American Pastoral, based on the novel by Philip Roth, and marking the directorial debut of actor Ewan McGregor, covers a myriad of themes, rich in conversation starters and intriguing talking points. But we move too fast throughout this narrative, as though simply ticking boxes, never stopping to dwell and reflect. So while undoubtedly an interesting piece of cinema, the inclination to cover it all costs this drama, and serves as a reminder that film, unlike literature, is often reliant more heavily on having a distinct focus.
McGregor plays the leading role of Swede Levov, a former high school sweetheart and triumphant college sportsman, going down the path many had envisaged when taking over his father’s business and marrying Miss America contestant Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). Years later they give birth to Merry, a sweet young girl who will be their only child, and one who suffers from a stutter throughout her childhood. When she’s a teenager (Dakota Fanning) her inability to speak freely is more frustrating than ever, for she’s a rebellious youth with plenty to say, taking a great aversion to the government’s war in Vietnam, and her following actions are set to rock this seemingly idyllic family set-up for good.
Visually, the film impresses, as McGregor’s take on the American Dream set-up comes with a certain outside affection, and one only a foreigner’s eye could achieve. And there are so many fascinating themes within this film, particularly those explored during Merry’s upbringing, as to try to determine what created this monster makes for more absorbing cinema than the aftermath of her actions. The relationship she shares with her mother, and the jealousy and irrational contempt she carries is equally as interesting, but again, it’s under-explored and finds itself lost in the crowd. Connelly, in particular, is not given enough screen time in this instance, and there’s an argument to be had that had we taken on her perspective as opposed to her husband’s, we may well have had a better film.
What also doesn’t help is the unrealistic make-up to make Swede’s younger brother (played by Rupert Evans) look older when we fast forward to the future, and though it seems somewhat harsh to highlight, it’s another factor in what makes this picture a challenge to adhere to and invest in. Another one being McGregor’s miscasting, particularly in the early stages when he’s supposed to be a student. Maybe as a first-time filmmaker it may have been advisable to take a step back and not star in the film too, as both respective roles are remarkably hard, so to balance both on a first attempt may well have backfired, resulting in a distinctly underwhelming affair.