James Schamus’ Indignation might well be the best filmic adaptation of a Philip Roth novel yet. You’d be forgiven for thinking that opening sentence is a glowing commendation, the likes you’d see sprawled across a ‘for your consideration’ ad sent out by Studios to well-to-do Oscar voters. In truth, it ain’t saying much.
Roth is no doubt a powerhouse of 20th century American literature but that doesn’t mean those who’ve wrestled with the virtuosic words and weighty ideas of his have had a smooth ride bringing them to the screen. Entries are either adapted from the forgettable books no one read (The Humbling) or from the downright unadaptable: 2003’s The Human Stain had Anthony Hopkins play a lightly skinned black man who could pass as a Jew, two things the Welshman most certainly isn’t.
So yeah, being hailed as the best of the Roth adaptations is a bit like being hailed the victor of a US presidential election in 2016 in that it sounds mightily impressive until you give an even basic inspection of the competition involved. Still though, with Indignation Schamus proves that the seemingly improbable could be done and considering it’s a debut feature this is no mean feat. This is mostly an accomplished imagining of a strange, little work from late period Roth, as well as a great vehicle for a gifted young actor.
Based on the 2008 novel of the same name, Indignation stars former wistful wallflower Logan Lerman, who as Marcus Massner also wants to enjoy perks of a life of semi-social seclusion. In 1951, at the height of the Korean War, Massner’s scholarship and prospective college education means he can avoid the draft and begin life as freshman at an Ohio university. A straight A-student with a strong work ethic, Massner doesn’t understand why he’s expected to be an ardent socialiser when he appears to be able to get by just as well without the more leisurely aspect of college life.
Massner is yet another pseudo-surrogate figure of Philip Roth’s. The character shares some biographical details with the author, but only enough so that writer still remains elusive to us. Like Roth, Massner is an intellectual who arose from humble origins and a non-practicing Jew who distances himself from what he sees are the rigid traditions of the faith his parents bestowed upon him. But the 19-year old is also pretentious and precocious to a fault, eager to push back against post-war assimilation and unable to comprehend his youthful naivety. After a date with beautiful young woman named Olivia (Sarah Gadon), he becomes fixated and perplexed by the act of fellatio she performs on him in a car. “It must be because her parents are divorced” he coldly concludes. It’s not long, however before he becomes infatuated with her ,as he sets in motion a series of events that roll out slowly to reveal fate at its most cruel.
Schamus litters Indignation with ruminations on the establishment of the self when both rallying against and trying to conform to the social structures that bind us. Besides the trappings of organised religion, Massner also finds himself at odds with the starch stricken, necktie culture of the 1950’s American campus. This conflict comes to a head in the film’s dramatic centrepiece, a 15 minute long scene of uncivil discourse between the isolate student and his concerned, traditionalist Dean of men. It’s not so much a fiery debate as it is a mild mannered, Coen-esque interplay that covers Bertrand Russell, religious identities and needless specificities. The sequence is Indigntion’s creamy caramel centre, a great short film that exists within the confines of an otherwise pretty good movie.
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Lerman’s performance is also his best to date, a more confident yet somehow equally vulnerable turn than his one in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He’s like Jesse Eisenberg’s iteration of Mark Zuckerburg but armed with some New Jersey swagger and a little bit more humanity. Sarah Gadon, who plays the troubled Olivia, affords a sultry sense of mystery to a vilified character that ends up being Indignation’s most human element. Schamus benefits from a smaller Roth story with limited scope and he can shoot these scenes between the two with a bewitching, puppy love intimacy.
Indignation is nonetheless hampered by some of the same ghosts that have haunted previous Roth adaptions. Characters that might have come off as simply colourful in the original text, like Marcus’s worrisome father, end up being broadly sketched when they appear on celluloid. The conclusion is also so punishingly bleak that it’s almost absurdly comic enough to be an episode of Black Mirror. Schamus’ achievement, however, of making a rather good Roth adaptation should not be understated. At every the least , Phillp Roth might be able to rest easy for the first time in a long time , knowing that someone finally did right by him.
Indignation is in selected cinemas from Friday 18th November.
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