Toronto 2016: American Pastoral review


★★☆☆☆
Ewan McGregor's decision to begin his directorial career with an adaptation of Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral was nothing if not ambitious. Roth's novel is the kind of densely-layered opus about the fictions of the American Dream that is regularly described as unfilmable and, regrettably, McGregor's effort seems to only have added fuel to that particular fire. A drab and airless affair, it effectively ignores the substantial political commentaries inherent in its story, and fails to land the emotional punches of the one it's intent on telling.

McGregor seems perfectly cast as Seymour ‘The Swede’ Levov during a framing device that sets him up as the prom-king pride of his local Jewish community of Weequahic, Newark. Remembered reverentially by narrator and old schoolmate, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), he is shocked to learn from The Swede's younger brother that life was not the picture postcard that might have been expected. But the potential juxtaposition of society's assumptions about The Swede's blonde-haired, blue-eyed, captain-of-industry future and the bitter reality never really pays off, save for in small peripheral moments. McGregor's performance fails to capture the tragedy of a man grasping for a past that perhaps never existed, it was just supposed to. As a symbol he's inert but he's no more compelling as a flawed man.

When he introduces his shiksa beauty queen fiancee Dawn (Jennifer Connolly) to his father (Peter Riegert) in an early scene, they toss around the idea that they may not have kids due to the conflicting expectations of their different faiths. Oh that they'd held firm. Instead they have the adorable Merry (Hannah Nordberg, then Dakota Fanning) whose significant childhood stutter and a possible sexual fixation on her father morphs over time into radical left-wing politics in the fervour of Black Power and anti-Vietman protest. When a bomb destroys their small town's general store, killing the owner, it also blows their family apart. The majority of the film is spent with The Swede and Dawn as they try to deal with the aftermath of their missing daughter's actions. It's slogging work for Connolly whose admirably committed but given very little to work with. It's mannered melodrama in place of moments that should be poignant and powerful.

Fanning fares a little better bringing much-needed vitality to her earlier scenes as the furious young revolutionary but she's not as lucky or convincing with Merry's later developments. Similarly, Valorie Curry's brief appearance as Merry's go-between with her father adds some short-lived energy to the stifling stillness. McGregor directs capably, but there's little inventiveness on show; compositions are immaculate but torpid. The major failing lies with the film's emotional crux, however. Whatever decisions were taken in the course of John Romano's adaptation of Roth's novel, American Pastoral is one whose myriad catastrophes should devastate and, alas, they leave you cold.

The Toronto Film Festival takes place from 8-18 September. For our coverage follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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