by Cassie Ochoa
American Pastoral is the first feature film directed by Ewan McGregor, who also stars as the lead character. Based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name, American Pastoral centers around an average 1960’s family as the world around them turns to chaos and their young daughter (Dakota Fanning) becomes a political radical. The trailer, which can be viewed here, shows the life and eventual tensions within the family unit. Set to a cover of Tear For Fears’ “Mad World,” it is very effective in depicting the ultimate impact of political radicalism in the family, though at times, it comes across as slightly staged. Since this is a feature film debut, let’s examine what potential McGregor has as a director and what the cinematographer will bring to this compelling family drama.
Ewan McGregor has been an independent acting staple in cinema since the early 2000’s, turning out work on Moulin Rouge!, the Star Wars prequel films, and Big Fish. While not a huge name, he’s been an appreciated talent in American cinema with his winning smile and fantastic acting in a variety of films. American Pastoral has been getting a lot of hype specifically because it is Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, but that’s a bit of a half truth. He has directed, once before, in a feature length anthology.
Tube Tales is an anthology series based on true anecdotes from the London tube station. There are nine directors on the project, one of whom is a young Ewan McGregor. His segment “Bone,” which you can watch here, is nearly wordless. Utilizing score to convey emotion, McGregor’s segment blends fantasy and reality, ultimately coming to a head in the climactic meeting of the woman on the card (Kay Curram) and the musician (Nicholas Tennant). The wordlessness of the characters helps sell the emotion of the actors’ faces, which McGregor ensures is framed beautifully.
Cinematographer Martin Ruhe knows how to shoot captivating people. With dozens of commercials and music videos under his belt, his constant work helps keep his creative tools tuned for any job. Working twice with director Anton Corbijn (The American, A Most Wanted Man) and on several thrillers, Ruhe is an established cinematographer and one of the best people McGregor could have hired for the job. In fact, according to No Film School, Ruhe was specifically selected for American Pastoral because of the opening to the feature film Harry Brown.
Let’s examine a quieter work of the cinematographer that is the best comparison to a film like American Pastoral. A biopic of late Joy Division singer, Ian Curtis, Control is one of those films that captivates even if the ending of the story is known. This scene from the film is a quiet moment of introspection from label owner Tony (Craig Parkinson) and Ian (Sam Riley) after the crowd riots due to Ian’s inability to perform. It’s a quiet moment in the film but the heartache Ian feels is conveyed so beautifully in its simplicity. The film has other standout moments with its performances of Joy Division songs, even most notably, Ian walking to his early job at an unemployment office in full punk attire, but it’s the quieter moments, such as after the riot, that truly paint Ian Curtis as the tragic figure he really was.
So, what can be expected of American Pastoral? Philip Roth novels are notoriously hard to adapt, so the story is going to be both, the most exciting thing about this film and potentially, what dooms it to mediocrity. Martin Ruhe’s cinematography should do a stunning job balancing the beauty and chaos of the time period. Both he and McGregor do great work with wordless moments, which is conveyed in the trailer. It’ll be a challenge to finally put an unfilmable novel on the screen, even more so for a novice director, but McGregor and Ruhe are bound to at least, give it their all.