(This film review of “Indignation” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 18, 2016 in a shorter form.)
Directed and written by James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth
Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield, Pico Alexander, Philip Ettinger and Noah Robbins
This week’s release of the film “Indignation”, based on a 2008 autobiographical Philip Roth novel, calls our attention to this pre-eminent American-Jewish novelist of the late twentieth century. Without exception, each of his more than 30 novels and collected stories exist in a Jewish world and Jewish framework of reference.
He also holds the record for more film adaptations than any other American-Jewish author. Starting with “Goodbye Columbus” in 1969, seven other Roth novels have been turned into movies, including “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1972), “The Ghost Writer” (TV, 1984), “The Human Stain” (2003), “Elegy” (2008, based on “The Dying Animal”) and “The Humbling” (2014).
“Indignation” the film closely follows the plot of the book and is based on Roth’s experiences studying at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. Set in the early 1950s, 19 year-old Marcus Messner – the only son of a Newark kosher butcher – leaves home to study at “Winesburg College”, in itself a fascinating reference to Sherwood Anderson’s early twentieth century short story collection.
Jumping from Jewish New Jersey to Gentile Ohio is a shock for young Messner: of 1400 students on campus, only 80 of them are Jewish. Upon his arrival, Messner finds himself rooming with two other Jewish students. He rebuffs attempts by the only Jewish fraternity on campus (as did Roth in real life) to try and make his own way, quietly and calmly, skipping the opportunity to try out for the baseball team to focus on his studies.
But Messner (played by Jewish actor Logan Lerman) – who is haunted by excessively anxious parents back in Newark – does not count on meeting the wealthy, blond-haired and very beautiful WASP, Olivia Hutton. Hutton is played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, who brings a sassy but delicate beauty to her “femme fatale” role that is reminiscent of the young Lauren Bacall.
After a sexual encounter with Olivia, Messner muses in a voice-over, “In Newark, it was inconceivable that girls like Olivia Hutton could do such a thing. But in Newark, there were no girls like Olivia Hutton.”
These lines are indicative of Roth’s excellent original writing, nicely adapted for the screen and directed by James Schamus. Although this is Schamus’ directorial debut, he has had a sterling film career as a producer, writer and film academic, frequently working with Ang Lee on projects such as “Brokeback Mountain”, “Lust Caution” and “Taking Woodstock”. Schamus – who is also Jewish – has assembled an extraordinary cast of unknown faces that bring a real freshness to this film. In addition to Lerman and Gadon, Tracey Letts plays the antisemitic Dean of Students of Winesburg College, and Danny Burstein and Linda Emond play Marcus’ parents. The two tense scenes between an increasingly stressed Marcus and a cool, calculating and dogged Dean Caudwell, are masterpieces of writing, acting and directing.
“Indignation” carries a certain old-fashioned quality, with its concerns for the 1950s American-Jewish experience and the genteel antisemitism faced by American Jews at the time, topics that were popular in the 1960s but have mostly faded from cultural consciousness. This film’s closest cinematic relative is “School Ties”, an inferior and less intellectually complex 1992 movie about a Jewish football player at a very non-Jewish college who also faces antisemitism. That film was also a “throw back” to the era of “Marjorie Morningstar” and other films that explored the American-Jewish post-war suburban experience of assimilation and suburbanisation.
Because “Indignation” is far from capturing our current Jewish “cultural moment” in the way that television series such as “Transparent” have done, it may not grab a large audience. But that’s a pity, because it is one of the finest coming-of-age dramas released in cinemas in 2016, made with great care, attention and devotion to Roth’s excellent prose, all done from a thoroughly Jewish perspective.
If I were now – as I once was – an American-Jewish college student on campus now, “Indignation” could very well have become my favourite film of the year, in the way that “Goodbye Columbus” captured my attention so many years ago. Yet I am thoroughly taken by the charms and emotional depth of “Indignation”, a major achievement by Schamus.