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Film review: American Pastoral

A shallow Swede

(12A)

    A doctor is the saviour in The Innocents
    A doctor is the saviour in The Innocents

    Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut in this pleasing enough but rather superficial adaptation of Philip Roth's 1997 Pulitzer prize-winning novel. McGregor has also cast himself in the lead as Seymour Levov - the Jewish, high-school sporting pride of postwar Weequahic, Newark. Nicknamed the "Swede", in reference to his Aryan looks and athleticism, he represents the high point of assimilation - the all-American guy.

    The story, told in flashback by narrator, 62-year-old Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) - Roth's sometime alter ego - is framed by a 45-year school reunion where Zuckerman is told that his hero, the legendary Swede, is dead.

    We learn that he became a successful businessman, happily married to Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), a Catholic of Irish descent and former beauty queen. "A shiksa, the Swede had done it," comments Zuckerman. He and his family lived in the country, far from New York's suffocating, new Jewish suburbs. But social and political turmoil brews beneath the surface of the Swede's gilded life. By the late 1960s, his beloved teenage, stuttering daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning) has grown to reject everything her parents represent, becoming politically radicalised, obsessed by the horrors of the Vietnam War. She ends up accused of bombing the local general store, killing a man then disappearing. "Who is she?" Dawn asks. His idyllic existence shattered, it is a question that the Swede then spends the rest of his life trying to answer.

    McGregor is miscast as the ill-fated Swede. He has no trace of Jew in him, and comes across as weak, naïve, even bland. We don't get a sense of the Swede's angst or inner torment. However, there are some compelling scenes and one of the strongest, which occurs at the beginning of the film, is between patriarch, Lou Levov (Peter Riegert) and Dawn in which he quizzes her about her religious beliefs and intentions as to how she would bring up any grandchild of his. "Baptism is a no."

    Connelly here is suitably strong-willed and feisty. Later, as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital, Dawn tells the Swede, "You shouldn't have married me." One of American Pastoral's explorations is into the consequences of marrying out.

    This is the second Roth film adaptation of the year - the other, Indignation, goes on general release next week - and although McGregor can be applauded for his enthusiasm for the text, the result is a film that never gets beyond the surface. Set during a time of great political unrest in America, including the Newark race riots, it misses the opportunity to explore its historical context. Despite being eminently watchable, wrapped in idyllic, nostalgic cinematography, the film is too two-dimensional to convey the nuanced treatise on America and the American Dream that is so well handled in the book, Perhaps, as has been said of previous attempts to film Roth, American Pastoral is an unfilmable novel - hampered by its dense description and internal prose.

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