I don’t often pick up Great American Novels. Mainly because they’re so heavy and I can’t risk putting my back out. They’re like bricks. You could build a new America on the back of the Great American Novel, literally.
American Pastoral is adapted from a Great American Novel by Great American Novelist Philip Roth. I haven’t read it, of course. I mainly stick to British history for my sprawling family dramas. They tend to be less angst ridden, there’s always a proper ending (a beheading, usually) and the outfits are fabulous.
That said although I’m not keen on overlong films I do enjoy the odd sprawling cinematic epic – Interstellar springs to mind. I was hoping for something similar from American Pastoral, but sadly although it sprawls it’s not in a good way.
The film looks beautiful, filmed through a 1950s colour filter. And it should be all the more relevant given the unrest and polarisation in the US at the moment. Optimism is high at the beginning of the film though, with the Jewish-American Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov saying “we can live wherever we want – this is America!”
Swede (Ewan McGregor) is a high school sports star, all-round golden boy and eventual successful family businessman. His father Lou, a very funny Peter Riegert, runs a glove factory and when Swede brings his sweetheart Dawn – a previous Miss New Jersey – to see him to discuss marriage, Lou is initially at odds with her. She is a very religious Roman Catholic while he is already thinking about future bar mitzvahs.
However Dawn wins Lou over and she and Swede marry, soon having a daughter Meredith (known as Merry). Merry has a near-idyllic upbringing, helping her mother with the cows while Swede runs the glove factory. Merry is a pretty blonde all-American girl whose childhood is only marred by her stutter and her therapist’s belief that it is due to jealousy of her beauty queen mother and perfect family.
It becomes increasingly apparent that something is wrong as Merry grows up and turns against her mother and father. The Vietnam War is unfolding and like many American young people Merry is furious at the government and the older generation. The traditional teenage angst – loud music and parent-hating – is also magnified in Merry, who seems to be incubating barely controlled fury at her parents, particularly her mother.
Merry heads off to New York on the train at weekends to spend time with other young activists, so eventually Swede offers what he thinks is a solution – that she instead campaigns against the war in their lovely quiet town, about 30 miles from New York. Swede is still running the factory in the city, and as riots break out on the streets he continues to keep it open despite the near mayhem in the locality some nights.
So far, so sort-of typical of many middle class families with teenage children during times of great change. But then there’s a bombing at their local town post office and a man is killed. Merry is considered a suspect and disappears. (The scene where Swede and Dawn visit the window of the family man who was killed is excellent – they are sort of apologising for Merry even though they don’t know if she is guilty, and the man’s widow shows far more grace under pressure than they do).
The family is clearly already fractured, but with Merry gone gradually her parents’ relationship collapses leaving only a facade. Swede makes it his life’s work to look for Merry, while Dawn begins to accept that Merry isn’t coming back, and that she hates them.
There are several issues I have with American Pastoral. It isn’t uneven, but the pace is so slow that by the end you do feel you’ve also aged 20 years, along with the characters. It’s a sad tale but it raises far more questions than it answers.
In fact there is no real ending. I can cope with a bit of film-related uncertainty, but this movie is not so much full of loose ends as completely frayed by the time we get to the final minutes.
It’s not so much that it promises more than it delivers, than that it delivers too much, but only bits. The stories not followed through actually sound more interesting – we never really see why Merry and her mother are at loggerheads so much and I’d have loved a movie concentrating on the two of them.
The actors are mostly excellent – Ocean James, who lays the young Merry, is fantastic portraying an already troubled girl with a stutter. Dakota Fanning is also very good as the older, angry, self centred Merry who is desperate to make a difference but also truly believes she understands the hows and whys of everything (I only wish I had had that confidence at her age. Or indeed while watching this film).
Jennifer Connelly, who has the kind of face the can portray great beauty or plainness, is wonderful as the lost, increasingly brittle Dawn (Connelly’s face is a rare thing. I’ve seen her in other films where she does look very plain, but always she manages to convey this without the usual recourse to a dowdy cardigan – I’m looking at you, Girl On A Train – and horrible makeup. And in American Pastoral she is totally believable as a woman whose exceptional beauty may be partly to blame for her family’s collapse).
McGregor is mostly good though he seems to be spread too thin at times as director and actor. In a key scene between just him and Merry’s therapist he just doesn’t seem that involved, despite “playing angry”.
Americal Pastoral is bookended by a writer at a high school reunion bumping into Jerry Levov, his old friend and Swede’s younger brother. This is the conceit which allows the story of Swede to be told but it’s really unnecessary. Though it does give us the quote “that’s how we know we are alive – because we are wrong”. After watching this film I wouldn’t argue with that.