Adapting Philip Roth’s novel, producer turned director James Schamus’ Indignation is a stylish feast of Fifties melancholia.
A Serious Manby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Based on Philip Roth’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, this is Ang Lee’s producer James Schamus’s debut as a director. Set in the 1950s, it’s the coming-of-age of Jewish butcher’s son Marcus Messner, the only child of a close and overprotective family in New Jersey. And Logan Lerman is superb, never off screen as fresh-faced Marcus – studious, solitary, intense, precociously intelligent yet emotionally naïve.
It’s the time of the Korean War, and Marcus avoids the draft that has resulted in the deaths of his friends in the neighbourhood by getting a scholarship to a university in Ohio. He’s an intellectual, a self-proclaimed atheist, yet in his new alien WASP environment, with compulsory chapel attendance, he struggles to avoid being pigeonholed by prejudice to his racial and religious background. He falls in love with beautiful blonde classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) and borrows a car to take her to a French restaurant on their one and only date. But he is confused by her forwardness when, unasked, she gives him his first ever blow job and he initally rejects her. Inexperienced, he misses the signs she tries to give him that her sophistication hides a very damaged and fragile personality.
The centrepiece of the film is a riveting confrontation between Marcus and the Dean (playwright and actor Tracy Letts), an intellectual sparring match of equals lasting fifteen minutes on screen, prompted ostensibly by Marcus’s request to transfer college rooms. The Dean needles Marcus about his Jewishness, and is patronising and paternalistic about his intellectual self-confidence and admiration for the philosophy of Bertrand Russell. A later scene between Marcus and his mother (Linda Emond) is chilling, as she calmly strikes a deal with him – she won’t leave his increasingly irrational and controlling father (Danny Burstein) if he will give up Olivia, who she has instantly identified as unsuitable.
Indignation sums up Roth’s/Marcus’s frustration and railing against the restrictive environment he finds himself in. It’s shot in subdued, smoky-brown tones, often angled from above, as if Marcus is being observed. In contrast, crucial hospital scenes which determine Marcus’s and Olivia’s fate are clinically white, bright and unforgiving. And in the end, the film comes full circle as it finally reveals the significance of a bunch of red and white roses and also the pervasiveness of the impact of the Korean War in closing shots which echo and expand on those at the start. It’s a very well-made, stylish film, yet despite the fine acting and excellent screenplay (also by Schamus), and apart from the central confrontation, though it’s consistently intellectually involving, for a such a personal story it seems pervasively melancholy rather than passionate.
Indignation is released on 18 November 2016 in the UK and premiered in the UK at the Sundance Film Festival, London.