Review by Karim Malak
Philip Roth’s 1997 timeless novel American Pastoral about a New Jersey small town football and basketball star gets adapted for the screen in this year’s Ewan McGregor film which carries the same name. As both director and lead actor, Ewan McGregor plays Swede Levov: the handsome Jew who goes on to marry the Miss Union County girl, Dawn (played by Jennifer Connelly). It is a seemingly triumphant story of the American melting pot as a Jewish man in 1950’s America rises against the odds, has his cake and eats it. As Swede and Dawn decide to marry, Dawn confronts Swede’s father. Dawn is not one to take no for answers and prevails through all the difficult questions Swede’s father throws at her. She insists were they to have kids their child would be baptized, rather than be in limbo on account of being Jewish, and forces the hand of Swede’s father, Lou Levov, an old and stubborn self-made Jew who owns a leather factory.
Nominated for two awards, best feature at the Hamburg Film Festival and best film at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, American Pastoral is likely to bring together Philip Roth fans and those who appreciate good film in general. American Pastoral departs from Philip Roth’s classic novel style of taking one character and making the viewer see their life through their own eyes as was the case with Indignation, another Philip Roth adaptation that was premiered this year as well that tells the story of the trials and tribulations of a young Jewish atheist at a Catholic seminary who experiences American anti-Jewish attitudes during World War II.
In contrast, American Pastoral, the story is told through Swede’s brother who tells his story during his high-school homecoming and divulges to a friend of Swede that he is actually in town for his brother’s funeral. Told as a flashback American Pastoral thus shows the intersections of the Vietnam War, the black civil rights movement and the everyday racism of the New Jersey police as well as the family politics of a Jewish/Catholic family in which the daughter competes for the love of her father with her mother. Depicting a classic case of the Electra complex, the film increasingly revolves around Swede’s daughter; the American dream it seems of the high school football star who married the high school beauty quickly crumbles.
The movie then plunges into the life of Swede’s stuttering daughter, Merry Levov (Dakota Fanning), who, as the family’s shrink has already stated, lives in the shadow of the local county’s beauty queen mother and the burden to be a perfectionist. In this case, the white picket fence of the family farm is what holds Merry from speaking. As Merry becomes more and more politicized and goes to New York to attend meetings about the Vietnam War she becomes more and more secluded, eventually running away from the house as she joins the political underground as bombings in the US spread while curfews are called in to stop the “rioting” which Merry insists is instead the first wave of the revolution. Swede Levov’s factory which proudly employs “80% Negros” has its windows smashed and its manager, Vicky (played by Uzo Adoba), a black woman in her 40’s, calls to tell him she has never seen anything like this type of violence as police shoot unarmed black protestors. Swede joins her and risks getting shot when he hoists up a sign on the factory windows proclaiming “This factory employs Negros.”
As Merry resurfaces through an alleged comrade, Swede’s life brightens up and he is lured into believing that this mysterious co-activist can lead him to his daughter. After several rendezvous he is disappointed and his wife shows up in the factory naked with leather gloves on, singing and serenading while Vicky yells for him to come quickly. Dawn has had a breakdown and goes to a mental hospital, during which she has a few cathartic episodes where she describes what she sees – her past – “Catholic schools boys as life guards…I should have married them.” She blames Swede, and his non-Catholicism, for their current predicament, implying that they brought into this world an ungodly child. Eventually what brings Dawn back is her decision to do a facelift in Geneva and undergo plastic surgery; she wants to be reborn to bury her past but Swede cannot let go of Merry just yet. As a reborn woman, Dawn is still as beautiful, if not more, as Swede’s father reminds him. She cheats on him with an architect redesigning their home who happens to also be an artist from whom Swede purchases his art to appease his wife.
Merry reappears and Swede learns what she has been through: rape at the hands of her comrades; struggles leaving from Chicago to Boston to New York barely eating and how they ‘used’ her to carry out bombings to protest the Vietnam War. When Swede asks her how many lives she has taken, she replies four. In shock Swede says he can “bring her back;” he is outraged at the those four white deaths, while Merry’s old 16-year-old voice rings in the background, reminding viewers of the previous scenes when she rebutted Swede, asking how many lives in Vietnam were lost while he didn’t care. It is the classic story of the activist underworld that in the name of revolution reproduces the same ills it claims to fight against. As Swede grows old and dies, the movie ends with Swede’s brother and his high school friend at his funeral, only to see Merry reappear by his coffin.