Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
“It’s a portrait of how two very different people with very different tendencies and personalities deal with the same trauma and same grief.”
How people deal with tragedy can vary wildly from one person to the next. For the two adult main characters in director Ewan McGregor’s AMERICAN PASTORAL, this is certainly true.
Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor) and his wife, former local beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), are left to deal with the fallout from their rebellious teen daughter Merry’s (Dakota Fanning) angst. It’s a moving portrait of America’s shifting socio-political standing through the microcosm of one seemingly picture perfect family.
We had the opportunity to speak with Connelly about the film and how she found McGregor just as wonderful a scene partner as a director.
“It felt pretty seamless, his transitioning between his responsibilities as a director and as an actor. It didn’t feel disruptive at all when we were doing scenes. I thought he made very confident choices the way he ran his set and the way he covered the scenes. We had a great time. He was very enthusiastic about this movie and he created a great environment to collaborate in.”
She found it particularly helpful to share in the same language as her director.
“It’s really nice. You really feel that the director understands working with actors and is interested in supporting performances and creating an environment in which actors can really be part of telling the story together with the director.”
Though the film’s first director dropped out, and McGregor filled those shoes, it was Connelly who had been attached to the project the longest. And she didn’t want to let go of the role as it was unlike anything she’s played before.
“Dawn, as a character, is very richly drawn. It was very interesting to play a woman at so many different stages in her life and to see what happens to her – to see where she starts out and what she dreams of and then see what actually happens and how she deals with things not working out as she dreamed. I was very moved by her. She was very powerful, but at the same time had a brittleness to her that I thought was kind of beautiful.”
Thematically, so much of AMERICAN PASTORAL is about people wanting to break out of boxes ascribed to them by society. Connelly felt that it’s a completely human response to preconceived judgement.
“This explores the ways we do that to one another – that we tend to take very black and white positions with one another. People do it with each other all the time, frankly. Yes, I’m sure people often jump to conclusions about one another. We tend to be very often reductive in our views and I think that’s very treacherous actually to make decisions based on people from superficial criteria. It’s something we’re hearing a lot of these days.”
Dawn particularly is the one judged the most harshly by others based on her beauty queen looks and status.
“It’s the first image that we have of her in the film. It’s something that follows her around and haunts her. Even Rita Cohen does it where she says, ‘Oh. Lady Dawn of the Manor.’ And [Swede’s] like, ‘What are you talking about?! Her parents were plumbers and they were farmers. And Merry has been shoveling shit since she was a little girl.’ And she says, ‘Fake. Fake. It’s all fake!’ Based on what?! How does she know it’s all fake? She thinks it is because Dawn looks a certain way. I think it’s really interesting and it’s something that we unfortunately contend with in society.”
Dawn and Swede’s reactions to the trauma Merry inflicts on them as well as others is remarkably dissimilar. It all culminates in an explosion of buried feelings Dawn unleashes on her husband.
“He avoids confrontation. She is someone who we see from the first scene she has, invites it and takes situations on in a straightforward manner. The rejection that she feels from her daughter, which sort of plays into all her insecurities about her own value and own worth, it’s excruciating for her. She’s completely dismantled by it. I think she goes through that period of years where she’s just waiting to see if her daughter is going to come back and wondering if she’s alive and ultimately she can’t take it anymore. She sets out to tear down everything that’s left standing. It’s fear. It’s rage. It’s regret.
I think that she did love Seymour. I really do. They had something genuine and real. But it think that she has to destroy that narrative because she has to re-write something else. She’s so angry at him for the way things worked out. Frankly for the fact that he’s holding onto this fantasy that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s certainly a portrait of how two very different people with very different tendencies and personalities deal with the same trauma and same grief. That manifests very, very differently. But certainly their lives are destroyed by both of them.”
AMERICAN PASTORAL opens on Friday, Oct. 21 in limited release and opens wide on Oct. 28.
- Interview: Ewan McGregor unwinds the challenges of time and a character’s metamorphosis in ‘AMERICAN PASTORAL’