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New Release Review - AMERICAN PASTORAL

A father attempts to track down his daughter, who may be responsible for an act of domestic terrorism.






Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Ewan McGregor

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Peter Riegert, Rupert Evans, Molly Parker, David Strathairn



American Pastoral has the look of a classy cable TV production, and ultimately we're left in little doubt that this is a story that could have prospered on the small screen, with more time allotted to fill in the many frustrating blanks that riddle McGregor's big screen adaptation.



For his directorial debut, Ewan McGregor has shown much ambition in adapting Philip Roth's epic novel of generation warfare in Vietnam era America. Unfortunately, it seems he's bitten off more than he can chew, as the Scottish star's film, in which he also plays the lead role, is a misfiring mess.

Returning to his old New Jersey high school for a 40 year reunion, writer Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) reminisces through voiceover about the school's most beloved pupil, Seymour 'Swede' Levov (McGregor), who is set to be buried the following day, having succumbed to illness. Swede's brother, Jerry (Rupert Evans), recounts the tale of how his brother's life was torn apart when his teenage daughter, Meredith (Dakota Fanning), disappeared into the radical underground following the bombing of a post office during the era of Vietnam War unrest.



These bookends are pointless, and make no logical sense, as we're presented with intimate details that the narrator, Jerry, couldn't possibly be privy to. That's but one of the film's issues, most of which can be attributed to McGregor's attempt to condense Roth's novel down to a two hour running time.

The film is dogged by jarring timeshifts that prompt us to question just how many pages McGregor and screenwriter John Romano have torn from the source novel. When we meet Meredith first she's a pubescent girl with a stutter that may or may not be an act of rebellion (the film contradicts itself on this issue, leaving us scratching our heads as to the point of its conclusion). Catching sight of the infamous news footage of a Buddhist monk self-immolating, she's immediately troubled, but the film suggests it's not just witnessing the gruesome act that disturbs her, but its political implications. The scene plays as though it were written by one of those parents who send out tweets implying their infant children have a highly improbable understanding of politics - "My four-year-old asked me if she'd be safe in Trump's America".



We then cut to Meredith as a 16-year-old screaming bile at LBJ on the kitchen TV, and abusing her parents for what she perceives as their middle-class complacency, though both share their daughter's opposition to the war. Such a cut leaves us with many questions, particularly as the scene is played as though Meredith has only just begun to act in such a fashion.

There's a similar moment involving Swede's wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), who after disappearing from the narrative for what feels like a good hour, suddenly turns up at his workplace, drunken and naked save for a beauty queen sash, like Sue Ellen Ewing striking out at JR. Again, we're left questioning how she could have gotten to this point without the film showing us any indicators, no matter how minor.



As a director, McGregor doesn't reinvent the wheel (he picked up the megaphone late on after the film's original director, Philip Noyce, dropped out), but he doesn't do much wrong either, although an encounter between Swede and a sexy young radical (Valorie Curry) in a hotel room is shot and played in a manner more befitting a Joe Esterhasz script, and the inclusion of Buffalo Springfield's 'For What It's Worth' on the soundtrack is inexcusably lazy. American Pastoral has the look of a classy cable TV production, and ultimately we're left in little doubt that this is a story that could have prospered on the small screen, with more time allotted to fill in the many frustrating blanks that riddle McGregor's big screen adaptation.

American Pastoral is in cinemas now.





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