Adapting a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a nearly impossible task for a seasoned director, let alone a first-timer, but Ewan McGregor accepts this challenge with American Pastoral. Actors-turned-directors always seem to assemble a team of highly talented collaborators, and for this film, it’s no different, as the likes of Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, David Strathairn, Uzo Aduba and Molly Parker join McGregor in a formidable cast along with Alexandre Desplat providing the score.
There’s also a beautiful and compelling story at play here: our narrator learns about (and shares with us) the trials of an old high school friend known as “The Swede” who seemed ready to conquer the world before being affected by the turbulent era of the 1960s, essentially throwing his life into disarray. As a capsule of the social and political revolution of this time period, the chaotic dissolution of innocence in white male America, the story offers a lot to admire and ponder. It bears a similarity to Citizen Kane, that notion of one man contemplating another man’s identity, trying to figure out “who he was” through a series of episodes in a seemingly predictable life that was anything but.
The grand scale of the film works well enough, but where it falters seems to be in its tone from scene to scene. We know these actors are some of the best around, particularly McGregor himself, but the scenes tend to play as slightly awkward and stagey, as if the reverence to Philip Roth’s source material gets in the way of creating dialogue and relationships that feel recognizably human and relatable. Or maybe it’s something else entirely (or just my own tonal preference). It certainly feels like we’re watching a play at times, which can have its advantages, but doesn’t quite fit with the intimate story we’re watching. Much of the film’s middle section struggles to maintain our interest because of the distance created by this vibe.
That’s unfortunate, because there are some truly outstanding moments and details that make the time spent with this movie worthwhile. Visually, it features tremendous images courtesy of McGregor and cinematographer Martin Ruhe’s collective eye. You could go so far as to call many of its images iconic. The brief sequence involving the incident at the post office, for example, is such a beautiful, quiet, serene moment, right down to the perfectly captured sound of the flag being raised up the flagpole, before it’s all violently interrupted. It’s a microcosm of the entire story of the film and of this period of history, told through simple sound and image.
There’s also the narrative framing featuring Strathairn as narrator Nathan Zuckerman, whose prose comes directly from Roth and is utilized in a more tonally appropriate way than the character dialogue. It’s fittingly reflective and writerly, resulting in a closing scene that redeems any earlier misgivings (not to mention remarkably effective makeup work), and finds a rhythm that fits the moment and images that tie its story up visually.
There are even brief moments that work very well between some of the performers. The dynamic between McGregor and Uzo Aduba in the riot scene is perhaps the best example. For the most part though, the dissonance of watching a more stage-appropriate rhythm on screen throws off the momentum gathered by the compelling moments created by talented actors like Connelly and Fanning. Their performances are genuine, but it’s as if the tempo these scenes try to sustain feels forced, like it’s trying to move things along. The moments that linger a little bit are the ones that feel right.
On the whole, while American Pastoral may not seem like a complete triumph, it does have some really interesting things to offer, leaving me eager to see McGregor take another crack at directing.
American Pastoral doesn't quite nail its tone, but it's a compelling enough adaptation with a few truly inspired moments.