The film’s poster offers a landscape of a world on its side, a turbulent affair illustrated by the sight of a house on fire, the idyllic setting completely at odds with the title of the film, American Pastoral. And so it is with the world of Seymour Levov (Ewan McGregor), a former high-school athlete, a Marine, and later a Jewish businessman running a successful glove factory; a man with a seemingly happy existence derailed by the unfolding political and social events of the 1960s.
Framed in the same way as Philip Roth’s celebrated novel, the film begins present day with a 45th high school reunion attended by Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), a writer and one time classmate of Seymour’s somewhat acrimonious brother, Jerry (an unrecognizable Rupert Evans). Zuckerman was the novel’s narrator, and here we sample some of that narration in an introductory voice-over as the man reflects on his own mortality as a 62 year-old while describing high-school reunions as being that time of magic “that made time past the time present.”
Seymour, known more affectionately as Swede, has passed away. The funeral is to be the following day. Writer Zuckerman is both surprised and saddened by the news delivered by Swede’s brother, Jerry. Having left the country for most of the 1960s, the writer eagerly listens to Jerry as he brings Zuckerman up to date on the tragic events of Swede’s life, ultimately leading to the one-time high-school athlete’s death.
As it began, the film circles back to present day, back to that reunion, followed by a brief though important scene at the funeral before fade out. Even if you’ve read the book and find the film’s attempt to present a faithful adaptation of Roth’s written word as admiral, looking back on what you’ve seen (as you will once you leave the theatre) it’s likely you may consider the framing device as presented here worked better on page than it does on film. Perhaps a story presented in chronological order, told in Strathairn’s narration throughout and ending with the funeral would have made more sense. Oddly, knowing that what you’re watching is a flashback, a series of highlights relating events already occurred, there remains a sense of distance as if you’re constantly held at arm’s length, a passive observer rather than one who should be fully involved.
Swede’s story is certainly tragic. The man whom writer Zuckerman describes as “Our hero; our Kennedy,” appears to have what many would perceive as the perfect life, one he shares with a former beauty queen wife (Jennifer Connelly, never better) and a daughter, Merry, short for Meredith (Ocean James as an eight year-old and later, Dakota Fanning). Merry suffers from a debilitating stutter, one that the young girl’s speech therapist (Molly Parker) theorizes has developed as a result of a psychological problem relating to the girl’s possible feeling of inadequacy – she will never attain the standard of beauty or character that is her mother. The young girl’s heroine is Audrey Hepburn, and interestingly it’s only when she sings Moon River that the stutter stops.
But it’s the events of political unrest in the outside world, the Vietnam war, the student protests, the riots and the violent clashes of political terrorism that turn Swede’s pastoral setting on its side. As a sixteen year-old, Merry is outraged by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war. She develops radical beliefs, involves herself with out of town radical friends, and points accusatory fingers at her middle-class parents with wild and unreasonable assertions that clearly have no basis in reality, manipulated by those she now unwisely reveres.
A bomb is planted at a local post-office and an innocent is killed. Whether Merry was responsible or not is never certain, but her disappearance on the day of the event is indication enough for the authorities to invade the privacy of Swede’s home and search through Merry’s bedroom for clues of any kind of radical involvement.
Despite the film’s earnest and estimable attempt at transferring a celebrated book to the screen, one rich in both expressive style and allusions, the inevitable streamlining required when adapting a novel into a screenplay takes away the very heart of what made Roth’s novel work so well; it renders the film’s themes less effective. There is much that adds texture to the idea of one’s respectability undermined by private, subversive behavior of those you think you know but don’t, all illustrated within the book but only hinted at on screen.
Swede’s final realization that you can never fully understand the hearts and minds of others is never quite as clear. Even Roth’s novel has Swede himself acting secretly, underscoring his own veneer of respectability – the novel has him engaging in a brief, secret affair with his daughter’s speech therapist; the film has the relationship remain on a purely professional level. Plus, there’s the additional element in the book of having his daughter’s weight balloon grotesquely that the film never shows.
For his directorial debut, actor Ewan McGregor has nicely captured the atmosphere of the both the idyllic country setting and the turbulent inner city life of the sixties. Martin Ruhe’s cinematography is well framed and solid, making the film nothing less than always visually gorgeous. Scottish born McGregor’s American accent never falters, neither does that of English born Rupert Evans. The scenes between McGregor’s Swede and Uzo Aduba as Vicky, a faithful and resilient black employee of Swede’s glove factory, are touching and ring of authenticity, plus Peter Riegert as Lou, Swede’s father, brings moments of welcome levity. “I’ll give you Christmas,” the Jewish patriarch states to his gentile daughter-in-law when referring to the religious upbringing of his granddaughter as if it’s a business negotiation.
It’s all quality work, but the problem is John Romano’s admittedly difficult task of adapting the book. It doesn’t deliver, and by short-changing much that added literary weight to the novel, there’s little here to suggest why it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 or how it came to be on Time Magazine’s list of all-time 100 greatest novels.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 108 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)