Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut with American Pastoral, a film which sees him star as sporting prodigy turned US Marine and local business heir, Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, . Swede and his wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) have their lives turned upside down when daughter Mary (Dakota Fanning) becomes increasingly radicalised by anti-Vietnam war beliefs. As the parent-child relationship becomes fractured and as racial conflict in 1960s America explodes, Mary goes missing after having become the suspect of a local petrol station bombing. This leads Swede on a wild goose chase for his daughter at the same time as cracks are beginning to appear in his marriage.
McGregor deserves credit for taking on such a meaty subject matter for his first feature film. Juggling politics, war and race with a family drama is a difficult task, and one which he handles well for the first two thirds of the movie. It’s a shame, therefore, that he completely drops those important contextual backdrops for the final third.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is its focus. With the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement shaping the US in the ‘60s, it feels very odd to base the film on the problems of a white middle class family. It feels distasteful, especially considering recent events in the US regarding race.
The whole movie also appears to be a bit of an ego trip for McGregor. In the movie, he casts himself as the purest hero you’re likely to ever see in cinema. Swede is such a good guy he becomes incredibly predictable. It’s so self-obsessed and boring that the film cries out for a dark turn and a flaw in its lead character. You’ll be left waiting for that turn until the credits roll.
In McGregor’s defence the performance is actually quite good. He anchors the film well and provides just enough emotion to keep the audience interested. One passionate scene in particular is masterfully played by the Scottish actor. His accent is generally believable, but there is one scene where the Scottish twang quite clearly comes through, ruining the scene and damaging the film as a whole.
As for other performances, the highlight is Peter Riegert as Swede’s traditional Jewish father Lou Levov. It’s a shame we don’t see more of him, because Fanning fails to do anything other than the clichéd rebellious daughter routine and Connelly totally overacts throughout the film.
The strongest aspect of the film is its production and costume design. They successfully place the audience in the ‘60s, with the stylish and elegant looks of the characters. The cinematography is satisfactory but it would be good to see more of an identity to the director’s work. After all, the definitive style of the films of Tarantino and Spielberg is what makes them stand out as greats.
McGregor’s directorial debut shows promise with a brave and original story, a stylish production and a solid lead performance. However, unlike his Irish namesake, he fails to deliver the knockout punch.