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Review: Indignation

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indignation

It is a mere coincidence in the UK theatrical distribution calendar, yet an interesting one nonetheless, that within the span of a week, another film adaptation of a novel by American Literature master Philip Roth hits the silver screen and it’s especially curious how both films are directorial debuts from high profile Hollywood figures.

After American Pastoral marked Ewan McGregor’s transition to filmmaking last week (read my review), it’s time for former producer/studio executive and 3-time Oscar nominee James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) to take the director’s chair and tackle Indignation, one of Roth’s final novels, published in 2008, two years prior to the multi-laureled author’s retirement.

The major difference between the two projects, aside from scope and scale and the source material’s thickness, is that Schamus also adapted the screenplay himself and that’s actually a rather significant detail in the great scheme of film critiquing. With Roth being notoriously a tough beast to adapt, Indignation’s greatest achievement, at the very least, is probably that of being so far the most critically praised screen translation of any of the author’s books.

Such an outcome is personally not a big surprise (although it’s not surprising how little to no credit screenwriters get) since we tend to forget that Mr. Schamus is also a long-time successful screenwriter whose credits include a few brilliant Ang Lee films like The Ice Storm (1997), Lust, Caution (2007) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Besides bringing his wide range of experience as a producer and studio head, it’s obvious that the first time director had things under control first and foremost in the story department, which is usually where it matters the most in regards to a film’s level of quality.

Indignation is a coming of age tale set in 1951, the second year of the Korean war, which chronicles the rather peculiar college experience of a Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey – Marcus Messner – played with incredible insight by Logan Lerman. The son of a kosher butcher, Marcus is a straight A student with a spotless disciplinary record and a thoroughly good boy who helps his father at the shop in his free time. When he receives a university scholarship to study law, that’s his ticket to avoid the military draft, where young kids his age usually wind up. The film in fact begins with Marcus and his family attending the funeral of one of their neighbours’ son who died in the war.

Marcus however decides to go study at Winensburg College in Ohio in order to get away from his overbearing father whose anxiety for his son’s well being has become borderline obsessive. There he keeps a low profile, spending time between classes and his studies, working shifts at the campus library in his spare time – that is until he meets the stunning Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). When he musters the courage to ask her out and takes her for dinner to the only fancy French restaurant in town, after borrowing his roommate’s car, Marcus immediately becomes smitten with the girl’s unique personality.

The evening, however, ends in a rather unexpected way for the naïve, virgin boy who is overwhelmed by the girl’s surprising behaviour, which sparks a chain reaction of events bound to change his life forever. Despite his family background Marcus is an atheist and a very smart and opinionated one at that, like with everything else. He only wants to focus on his studies and excel in order to go to law school but soon he has to deal with many distractions. His roommate makes it impossible for him to study in peace, his father tries to control him from afar by sending the leader of the college’s Jewish fraternity to recruit him, and last but not least Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) targets his antisocial inclinations.

In what will go down as one of the longest and most compelling dialogue scenes of the year on screen, Marcus faces off with the Dean in a verbal duel whose tension rivals that of a Western’s gun dispute. It’s the novel’s key scene – the one that thematically spells out the book’s title – and Schamus keeps the power of Roth’s words intact allowing the wonderful performances of Lerman and Letts to soar. This is where the film wins: it faithfully captures the spirit of the text yet infuses it with the vis that only a great mise-en-scéne can provide.

From a filmmaker the calibre of James Schamus I wouldn’t have expected any less on a production level. Despite the low budget, the film is beautifully shot and the period skillfully recreated, but what distinguishes Schamus as a director with great promise ahead is the exquisite care for the written word and the nuanced sensibility to guide his talented cast. Logan Lerman finally finds a lead role worthy of his potential, perfectly incarnating Marcus’ essence and nailing his arc from innocent boy to indignant young man. Sarah Gadon confirms how her stunning beauty only matches her effortless, hypnotizing ability to portray enigmatic characters.

Once again, Roth confirms to be an author that couldn’t be more relevant to the current state of affairs and this novel in particular is a perfect nod to a disoriented youth with the need to rebel against the oppression of a system that one way or another is out there to get them. Schamus expertly portrays all those feelings on screen and ultimately, in spite of the heavy drama, he finds the humour and most importantly the hope we all need and that of course resides in our ability to love and let love in.

5-out-of-5

Indignation is out in the UK on 18th November 2016.

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