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American Pastoral


Stars: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Peter Riegert, Rupert Evans, Uzo Aduba, Molly Parker, Valorie Curry, Hannah Nordberg, Julia Silverman, Mark Hildreth, Samantha Mathis, David Strathairn

Director: Ewan McGregor

Months can pass without a movie based on Philip Roth novel turning up.

Then, curiously, two film versions of his works – Indignation and American Pastoral – are released in the same fortnight, both marking the directorial debuts of their filmmakers.

Indignation’s debuting director James Schamus has already scored as producer (Brokeback Mountain) and notable screenwriter (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) while Trainspotting star McGregor, behind the camera and in front of it in American Pastoral, is most renowned for epic Star Wars action.

So who wins the competition for critical commendation?

No contest.

Indignation rightly garners mostly positive critical kudos while American Pastoral is largely put out to pasture as a routine drama.

Which is unfair.

Both films (Indignation is essentially biographical) deal with Jewish life and identity in the United States.

American Pastoral (told in flashback by Strathairn and gently scripted by John Romano from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel), follows McGregor, unexpectedly credible and surprisingly moving, too, from his days as a legendary high school jock who marries, becoming a successful businessman in his father’s glove-making business in Newark, and enjoys an idyllic white-picket fence up-market suburban life married to former beauty queen Connelly.

Until the troubled 1960s, that is when his up-market suburban existence is shattered.

His 16-year-old daughter Fanning ("Everything is political. Brushing your teeth Is political!"), having unexpectedly become a (then fashionable?) 1960s anti-Vietnam war protester, is accused of being involved in the bombing of a local post office (seconds after its owner has raised the Stars and Stripes in front of the store) and vanishes….

McGregor handles the innate melodrama of the story well on both sides of the camera. Performances are good, as is the pacing of the increasingly emotional drive of the narrative.

A striking sequence sees McGregor facing unnerving sexual titillation from a young woman (Curry) when he tries to pay her $10,000 to tell him where his errant daughter is hiding out.

McGregor, Connelly, Fanning and Riegert as McGregor’s father give excellent performances in an unpretentious but unexpectedly enjoyable melodrama - semi-glossy storytelling that makes unexpectedly potent sociological points in a style pleasurably reminiscent of those now fashionable vintage Douglas Sirk/Universal-style melodramas.

Alan Frank

USA/Hong Kong 2016. UK Distributor: Entertainment Film Distriibutors. Colour.
108 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 1, Swearing 2.

Review date: 19 Nov 2016