Debut director James Schamus steers the best Philip Roth adaptation in decades
Transferring the work of Philip Roth to the big screen has proved tricky. After the initial impact of Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint in the late 1960s / early 1970s, there's a long gap until the 2000s, where The Human Stain, Elegy and The Humbling all failed to capture the author's mordant intelligence. Recently we've seen Ewan McGregor tackle American Pastoral and now another debut director, James Schamus (best known for writing and producing much of Ang Lee's canon), has a crack at Indignation, with the film emerging as an effective portrayal of idealism in conflict with authority.
In 1951 Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is keen to avoid the draft to the Korean War and attempts to transcend his humble Newark origins by enrolling in a liberal Ohio college. There Marcus meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a magnetic, troubled woman whose advances both attract and guilt-trip him in typical Roth fashion; he enjoys her sexual attention, but without ever understanding her. Pressure reaches Marcus, not only through his mother Esther (Linda Emond) but through Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), who interrogates Marcus over his religious beliefs and questions his motivations for skipping class.
Indignation is an assured first feature, fierce in its sense of a young man seeking to understand the world without imposing a prism of religious belief on his behavior. Lerman – recognisable from the Percy Jackson teen fantasy franchise – graduates to genuine dramatic heights here, and he's notably supported by Letts, an accomplished playwright (Killer Joe, August: Osage County) who wrings intensity out of his long confrontation with Marcus.
This is a deliberately low-key drama about sex and religion, tastefully and carefully handled in the fashion of 2015's Carol. The refinement of Schamus's storytelling is up to the task of evoking the novel's honest, yet complex notions, making this the best Roth adaptation in decades.
General release from Fri 18 Nov.