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Ewan McGregor brings classic Philip Roth novel to big screen

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Ewan McGregor in Pastoral.

Directing your first film is hard enough without also starring in it, Sisyphean when your film’s an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Philip Roth novel. But that’s just what Ewan McGregor does, with mixed results, in American Pastoral.

It’s impossible to understate the importance of McGregor’s leading role. As Seymour “Swede” Levov, he isn’t just playing a man, but America, leading a charmed, idyllic life in the 1950s, imploding in the 1960s. As director, he deftly navigates the film’s tonal shift between these two periods as his light-hearted first act transitions into the film’s subsequent scenes, however depressing and overwhelming they are.

And like America, Levov is mythologized, extolled by Roth’s frequent fictional alter ego and narrator, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn). Zuckerman describes Levov with the same admiration that Nick Carraway describes Gatsby: a man who had everything and lost it all, but profoundly touched people along the way, like Zuckerman had been when “Swede” acknowledged him once after a football game.

Husband to a former beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly) and forgiving father to a left-wing radical daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning), Levov’s life unravels when Merry pipe bombs a post office in protest of the Vietnam War, killing the storeowner-father inside. On the inside, Levov dies too, sparing no expense or shortage of the film’s duration looking for Merry after she runs away.

Merry is not only her family’s undoing, but the film’s, as well. As her behaviour escalates from verbal to violent outbursts of political frustration, to something that only be described as involving a facemask because she doesn’t want to taint the air, Merry’s whiney and non-sensical ramblings are a terrible strain. I’d be happy if this facemask thing caught on among certain politicians, though.

Contrasted with Zuckerman’s distantly observed, rose-coloured perception of Levov is an intimate portrait of “Swede” as Job, a righteous man whose life tests and humbles him in the most tragic of ways.

Before the destruction that Merry wrought, Levov went as far as a Jewish glove-factory owner could go in 1950s America, and he even had the advantage of star athleticism, blond hair and blue eyes (hence his nickname) to earn his honorary admission into Gentile society.

Were it not for his character’s Nordic looks, I’d say McGregor miscast himself as a Jew. What he lacks in familiarity, he makes up for in performance, earning plenty of sympathy, even if Levov’s miserable offspring shows no sign of deserving it. In the film’s early going, McGregor displays a rare ferocity when the young Merry confuses her father’s affections and asks him to kiss her on the lips. That the scene is uncomfortable and Levov is frightening is a credit to McGregor’s skill as both director and actor.

Outstanding but underused, McGregor’s supporting cast is one of the film’s few redeeming qualities. The generally underrated Strathairn’s earnest and understated manner brings an ironic naïveté to the aged Zuckerman. As Levov’s secretary, Uzo Aduba exists solely to serve him and his connection to the 1960s race riots, and is therefore, squandered. Valorie Curry plays a mysterious and manipulative young woman with valuable information on Merry’s whereabouts, and Molly Parker makes all-too-brief appearances as a psychologist who represents everything wrong with the institution at the time.

Owning the lion’s share of the Levov family’s “Jewish” attributes is Lou, Seymour’s father, (Peter Riegert) who exists mostly as comic relief. In his introduction, Lou openly disparages his son’s choice of wife because she’s a “goy”, establishing the obnoxious loudmouth with no qualms sharing his opinions on politics, art, religion or family.

Like Levov’s own life, American Pastoral, which screened at the Toronto Film Festival and opens in selected cinemas later this month, is a satisfying if troubled adaptation that earns more from its performances than its bleak outlook. n

Excised Material:

While Roth’s book may be a serious contender for the “Great American Novel”, McGregor’s film is hardly eligible for greatness.

The film director, like the writer, can be omniscient if he/she wants to be, but where Roth may have employed the cold and distant eye of objectivity in his novel, McGregor lets us get too close to the Swede for Zuckerman’s mythologizing, or the framing device in which he exists, to mean anything profound.

Acerbic observations of American culture filtered through the Jewish experience.

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