Ewan McGregor impresses in front of and behind the camera as he takes on the Philip Roth novel
Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut with this ambitious attempt to bring Philip Roth's 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the big screen. The first of two Roth adaptations to hit UK cinemas in November – the second being James Schamus's Indignation – McGregor and screenwriter John Romano necessarily distil Roth's knotty, decades-spanning book down mainly to the 1960s, where we encounter Seymour 'Swede' Levov and his family.
A former high school sports hero who married Miss New Jersey (Jennifer Connelly) and now runs the family glove-making business, Swede (played by McGregor himself) is a decent man and a good father to his daughter Merry, who has been afflicted with a terrible stutter. As played by Hannah Nordberg, the 12-year-old Merry is adorably innocent. But by the time Dakota Fanning takes over the role, she's a radicalised teen, drawn to political groups in New York and alienated from her parents and her small-town surroundings.
Set against the backdrop of the Newark riots – fuelled by racial profiling and African-American exclusion – McGregor plunges the viewer into a world that feels all too relevant today. When a bomb goes off in the local post office, killing the proprietor, timed just as Merry disappears, she is immediately suspected. Facing every parent's worst nightmare, the devastated Swede is determined to find her, a seemingly impossible task that leaves him frazzled and his wife losing her grip on her sanity.
McGregor directs with clarity and composure, eliciting fine performances from his supporting cast (particularly a fabulous Fanning, and Valorie Curry, who plays Merry's provocative companion). And, as he did in The Impossible, McGregor the actor admirably conveys the heartache being a parent can bring. True, the complexity of Roth's work may be gone but this first-timer's assurance behind the camera, his willingness to take risks and his ability to capture nuance all serve him well. A noteworthy debut.
General release from Fri 11 Nov.