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Dawn Dwyer Levov (Jennifer Connelly) and Swede Levov (Ewan McGregor) in American Pastoral.Richard Foreman

As Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut adapting Philip Roth's sprawling and masterful American Pastoral for the screen, the Scottish actor begins with an odd gesture of fidelity. The novel tells the story of Seymour (Swede) Levov, the former high-school football star whose blessed existence is destroyed when his radicalized teenage daughter bombs the local post office. But the book's first quarter is a lengthy preamble narrated by that Roth alter-ego, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who discovers the sad fate of his adolescent hero when he attends a high-school reunion as an old man.

Casting David Strathairn as the sympathetic little Zuckerman, McGregor sets up the whole reunion before proceeding with the inevitable flashback to the promise of the 1950s and the violence of the sixties. For the cinemagoer, it's a puzzlingly bland start, unnecessary to the dramatic tale of family fortunes and toxic politics that will follow.

It is only if you read, or reread, the 1997 novel, that you might see why Roth uses Zuckerman to frame the action – and why his presence is so key to the novel's themes that McGregor and screenwriter John Romano might make the mistake of maintaining that frame. Zuckerman reflects at length on what he knew of the Swede, of how mistaken he was in his assumptions both back in high school and at a later-life meeting with the man shortly before his death.

And then, imperceptibly almost, Roth moves from Zuckerman's point of view to the Swede's in a book packed with the lengthy interior monologues and shifting perspectives that can make Roth's insight into the human condition so compelling.

How difficult to jettison Zuckerman, a figure central to the novel's struggle to understand its own characters, and yet on film he seems to exist only as a wan gatekeeper, leading a contemporary audience into the recent past, his true meta-fictional role now invisible.

Well, McGregor is just the latest in a long list of directors who, attracted by Roth's well-crafted plots and powerful sense of place, have then stumbled when it comes to serving up any taste of the vast interiority of his characters. The most recent failure was Indignation, a small but readable return to the crushingly cloistered 1950s that Roth published in 2008 and which James Schamus turned into a unnecessary little film this year. Who needs to be reminded that 1950s America was sexist, paternalistic and anti-Semitic? At least American Pastoral, with its tale of deep cultural divides and parents heartbroken by fundamentalist youth, is hugely topical.

But how can a film do justice not only to the melodramatic story of the sensitive, stuttering Merry Levov and the richly observed picture of the turbulent 1960s, but also to the core of the Swede's suffering?

Two things would be needed. One would be an outstanding performance by the lead actor capturing the essence of the Swede's decency, the way he has borne others' adulation and expectations so comfortably and so humbly, and the price he pays for maintaining that façade as Merry's fate eats away at his insides. And second, of course, would be remarkable imagery, a cinematography of the shattered American dream.

With regards to the latter, cinematographer Martin Ruhe produces many fine moments, including, of course, the image of Mr. Hamelin running a fluttering stars and stripes up the flagpole moments before his post office and general store is blown to smithereens. Ruhe's camera delights in the green hills of the Levov's bucolic estate where Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), the former Miss New Jersey who was once the Swede's great prize, now tends her herd of cows. And after Merry's bomb, it offers up a black-clad McGregor and Connelly posed together like the dour couple in American Gothic. This is very conscious and effective icon-making, a cinematic equivalent of Roth's long reflections on the dream that the Swede achieved and Merry destroyed.

And yet, perhaps even because this backdrop is so lovingly well-observed, the characters appear in front of it as mere illustrations of the social forces at work. The likeable McGregor is steadfast and sorrowful without giving much hint of the gnawing self-doubt that has overcome the Swede; Connelly is graciously depressed. You can empathize with their pain – or at least you can imagine it – but these are not performances that do justice to the couple's shifting disbelief, grief and sense of self.

As Merry, Dakota Fanning also renders the ghastly surface of a fanatic rather than the explanation. (Her fury feels particularly tragic because of the gripping work Hannah Nordberg does on the pained and peculiar 12-year-old Merry who proceeds her.) But in this instance the performance is actually faithful to the novel where the sheer mystery of Merry's behaviour is crucial to understanding the Swede's predicament.

For their conclusion, McGregor and Romano belatedly choose to depart significantly from Roth, opting for something tidier as Zuckerman reappears. He now observes that you can be quite wrong about people, a thought that in this visually impressive yet emotionally narrow film appears painfully naive. Roth's ironic observation of the American dream and his dissection of the violence in American society are rather larger than a surprised recognition that bad things happen to good people.