“What she blew up that day, was his life.”
Directorial debuts are an interesting beast. I’ve never refused to watch a film based on the fact it was the director’s first time out; after all, over the last couple of years, films like Ex Machina and Deadpool marked the first time behind the camera for their helmers. But when I read that Ewan McGregor was busting his directorial cherry with American Pastoral, I admit to being less than enthused at the idea of watching it.
Based on Philip Roth’s 1997 novel and starring McGregor, Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning, American Pastoral is the story of how the Vietnam war and the politics surrounding it in the United States affects a middle-class suburban family, both directly and indirectly. High school superstar turned marine turned business owner Seymour Levov (McGregor) and his beauty pageant winning wife Dawn (Connelly) live a seemingly perfect life in the Newark countryside; big house, farm, and a beautiful daughter, Meredith – played by a combination of Dakota Fanning, Hannah Nordberg and Ocean James.
Meredith (or Mary), has suffered her entire life with a close-to-crippling stutter, with an inability of her parents to help their kid and a therapist trying to point the blame at the loving mum and dad. Mary’s struggles don’t seem to be letting up at any point as her impediment forces a gap between her and everyone she knows; her family most of all. As she gets older, and the war in south-east Asia gains more public coverage, Mary begins to take the lack of empathy towards the war in her house – and America in general – quite personally. When she finds a group that does seem to accept her, the Levov family find themselves with a political protestor on their hands with no way to reason with her.
Things come to a head when Mary lets off a bomb in a local post office, killing the proprietor and setting in motion years of torment for her family as she goes on the run from the law.
American Pastoral certainly has plenty to say, and it doesn’t take a genius to scratch through to its subtext to see that the point it’s trying to make is about how people are just as vulnerable and easily manipulated today as they may have been then. That often goes more so for people feeling marginalised in any way. But the film is just so clumsy in getting to its point that I find it quite hard to care once we get to the closing credits.
The story is told to you as a flashback on the eve of Seymour Levov’s funeral by his brother, to a fellow classmate at a high school reunion. With a promise of a story of Seymour’s life and how it fell apart at the hands of his daughter, the storytelling device feels throwaway and incidental as it is all but forgotten until the final scenes. Sadly, this is indicative of the film as a whole.
Performances are good, but not really good enough to bring the rest of the film together. McGregor plays the angry and concerned father and husband very well, but his awful American accent is a distraction and it pulls you out of scenes when he’s trying to convey anger or fear. His performance isn’t terrible, but it’s so-so.
I could say almost exactly the same for Connelly’s role as the concerned mother who goes through grief in a completely different way to her husband, adding to his stresses. She’s good (of course she is, she’s Jennifer Connelly) but she’s just not as great as we all know she can be. In a surprise turn-around, the person that impressed me the most was someone that hasn’t had that kind of impression on me since she was ten years old! Back in 2004, Dakota Fanning left me in absolute bits at her performance in Man on Fire. Sadly, since then, she’s barely been a blip on my radar, not really giving me any reason to pay attention to her. Until now.
I’m not saying she’ll be taking away awards or anything for this role, despite the fact that she is very good. I just think that for an actor to all-but disappear from my field of vision, to jump back into it with a performance that strong, is definitely something worth mentioning. Watching this girl angrily try to get her words out as her dad refuses to understand her point of view is awful and brilliant. Sadly, the people that need the most recognition are the people that will inevitably get the least. Like Fanning all those years ago, the actresses playing the young Mary are outstanding. Both Ocean James and Hannah Nordberg, who play Mary at eight and ten years old respectively, both put I n genuinely heartbreaking performances as the young girl suffering incredibly with an inability to communicate properly. Every time one of the girls was on screen, my heart sank into the cushion of my seat as I wanted to reach into the screen and desperately tell her it’s ok! Now, I know when it comes to daughters having a shit time of it, I am a big girl and I’m willing to blub at a moments notice, but damn those girls were incredible.
Unfortunately, McGregor’s direction and the lacklustre screenplay don’t do the largely great performances justice. A feeling of mediocrity flows through the entire film and leaving it a half-baked attempt to be poignant and dramatic. Not what I expected for a drama released this late in the year. It’s not a bad film, but I would have liked just a little bit more cohesion in its story telling, is all.