Indignation is a riveting film adaptation of a Philip Roth novel, wonderfully crafted and performed, with the big themes of self-determination and mortality coursing through its veins.
Film adaptations of novels are rarely seamless in transition, often retaining literary artifacts that sit awkwardly in the new medium and point back to the source text. Further, what works on the page often does not on the screen, and why should it? Film is a time-limited medium of sight and sound. A writer works only with words, and virtually without limitation – a novel is as short or long as it needs to be.
Writer/director James Schamus has successfully negotiated almost all the pitfalls in bringing Philip Roth’s novel Indignation to the screen. Indeed, he goes further than adaptation, all but fusing the literary and film mediums. The writing is brilliant, as tight as a great short story, where every word matters – a literary feat in itself. The screenplay is dialogue-heavy, most of the film comprising masterfully managed (and performed) spoken exchanges between characters. In combination with expert characterisation, Schamus harnesses the visual power of film to depict in precise and convincing detail the early 50s era in which the story is set. More than this, he has captured the very spirit of the time, or at least how one imagines it to have been.
The white America of Indignation is repressive, conformist and pervasively – indeed, assertively – Christian. This is no society for misfits like lead character Marcus Messner (an inspired Logan Lerman). He doesn’t fit the white middle-class mainstream mould, firstly because he comes from a working-class Jewish family (his father is a butcher, as was his father before him), secondly because he is an atheist. Thirdly, he is not a patriot, relieved to have avoided military duty in the Korean War by winning a scholarship to the prestigious (and fictional) Winesburg College in Ohio. He is also thankful to be escaping his small town fate as apprentice to his father, who is suffocatingly protective.
Marcus’s university life is fraught with irritations and problems from the get-go. He is none too enamoured with his Jewish roommates, rejects persistent invitations to join the Jewish campus fraternity, and is resentful that he must abide by the university’s compulsory rule that all students must attend weekly chapel services.
Then there is his distracting crush on beautiful blonde non-Jewish Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a fellow misfit whose sexual precociousness on their first date sends him into a moral maelstrom over whether she is a “slut.” Yes, he is as naïve as it gets, but Olivia’s behaviour does transgress the bounds of the times. She is subversive, and in this, something of a kindred spirit. She is also troubled, to which the scars on her wrist bear testimony. Marcus is too dazzled to notice, but his mother, on subsequently meeting Olivia, is not. Determined to split them up, she confronts Marcus with a life-changing choice – one of several he must make.
When Marcus elects to live alone in rundown quarters to escape his roommates, he is summoned to the office of Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts). The intellectual chess game that ensues between Caudwell and Marcus is stunning, the highlight of the film. The dialogue, the acting, the sheer power of the scene and the rage that informs it, are quite extraordinary. Caudwell draws Marcus out, prodding and goading him in an invasive and unsavoury interrogation, right down to quizzing him on his dating forays. However, the Dean’s real target is Marcus’s atheism. The scene takes on the feel of a courtroom drama, with Caudwell in the role of wily, tyrannical Prosecutor acting on behalf of the State. Marcus, on trial as a philosophical miscreant, conducts his defence with a simmering fury and fierce intellectual conviction in the validity of his beliefs and his right to hold them.
But the deck is stacked against him, and Olivia, and anyone who holds “dangerous” beliefs and/or dares defy socio-cultural expectations and demands. As Olivia prophetically remarks, drawing on a quote from Ben Franklin: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”
This is a riveting film of real substance, wonderfully crafted and performed, with the big themes of self-determination and mortality coursing through its veins. Its only flaw of any note is a rushed ending that extends the dramatic time frame like a zoom lens, but is nevertheless poignant in its bitter-sweet affirmation that for all the pain and injustice befalling the individual with the moral courage to fight against the forces of oppression there is hope, even salvation, in love.
Movie website: http://indignationfilm.com/
Australian release date: 18 Aug 2016 (@ Cinema Paradiso in Perth)
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