INDIGNATION (USA | China/TBC/110mins)
Directed by James Schamus. Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Ben Rosenfield
THE PLOT: Marcus (Logan Lerman), a working class Jewish boy from New Jersey is awarded a scholarship at Winesburg college in Ohio in the 1950s. Beliving this to be a place of study, learning and free expression, Marcus throws himself into this new life, but it is not long before he has caught the Dean’s (Tracy Letts) ateention for not socialising, is questioning authority candidly and falling in love with the beautiful but troubled Olivia (Sarah Gadon).
THE VERDICT: Based on Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, ‘Indignation’ is the author’s 29th novel, and the second to come to the big screen this month after American Pastoral. The book is semi-autobiographical and based on Roth’s time in college, and is obviously a personal project for long time writer/producer but first time director James Schamus.
Logan Lerman leads the cast as Marcus, and this is the most grown up and assured role that the actor has played to date. Lerman handles arguing about Bertrand Russell’s essay “Why I Am Not a Christian”, religion and sex easily, and it is clear that this is a young actor who has developed range and a taste for interesting projects as he has got older. Sarah Gadon fares less well as the charming, beautiful but unruly Olivia Hutton; the subject of Marcus’ infatuation and cause of confusion for him. Gadon never truly gets the chance to explore her former alcoholic, suicidal character on screen, instead all of this is hidden underneath a veneer of composure that never seems to slip, other than the times when she is unexpectedly sexually open and promiscuous. Tracy Letts – perhaps better known for his work as screenwriter on ‘August: Osage County’ and ‘Killer Joe’ – mades Dean Caldwell imposing and strong, and a natural foil for Marcus’ more hopeful and revolutionary ways of thinking.
As screenwriter, James Schamus has stayed true to the feel of the novel, and allows the film to drift until the final 15 minutes of its 110 minute running time, when the threads of the story begin to come together. There are times when the film feels as though it is drifting from one scene to the next, rather than telling a cohesive story, but the performances of the actors go some way into bringing it all together on screen. As director, Schamus coaxes wonderful performances from his cast, but never gives the pacing a sense of urgency, meaning that the film never truly grabs or engages audiences until it is almost too late. That said, ‘Indignation’ has some wonderful scenes – such as Letts and Lerman’s first meeting – but there are not enough of these throughout the film to bring it together in the end.
In all,’ Indignation’ is a film populated with strong performances from Logan Lerman, Tarcy Letts and – to a lesser degree, since she is never really given a chance – Sarah Gadon. The story of the film feels loose and drifting, and although it all comes together in the end, this comes as too little too late.
RATING: 3/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    Celebrated American author Philip Roth and his works have had a somewhat patchy transfer to the big screen. Just last week, Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut American Pastoral wrestled with Roth’s twiny, barbed prose with mixed results. Like notoriously tricky videogame adaptations, there’s still hope that there might one to break the mould. It’s finally here in the form of Indignation.

    Newark, 1951. While his buddies are shipped off to the new war in Korea, Marcus (Logan Lerman) instead takes a scholarship at a prestigious university in Ohio. He’s placed in a shared dorm room with two other Jews, something which confuses him as he’s an atheist. He’s aiming to be a lawyer and there’s certainly a fire within him that protests against injustice or being labelled. Not wanting to join a fraternity, he instead becomes drawn to fellow student Olivia (Sarah Gadon). She’s attracted to his personality and his view of the world. In the more repressive and buttoned-up 1950s, girls like Olivia aren’t that common – which is what interests him. On the way home from their first date, an awkward sexual encounter occurs which changes his view of her. For reasons that become clear as the story progresses, Olivia has a troubled past which has framed her view of the world and other people’s views of her. They get back in touch and spend more time together, but rumours spread of the nature of their relationship. This catches the attention of Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), a man with a very singular view about conformity and fitting in with your peers…

    James Schamus has had a long career in producing, often working with Ang Lee. For his directorial debut, he has chosen Indignation – a film that recalls Dead Poets Society in its depiction of 1950s academic mores and how an unconventional rebel in the midst needs to be ejected from the system. Marcus is at the core of the story, a young man who objects with righteous indignation at being told to attend mass in order to graduate. That’s not the only thing he objects to about academic life. How he conducts himself around others, particularly women, is also of concern to his new environment and the man who runs it. Although the scenes between Marcus and Olivia have a touching sincerity to them, the best scenes are kept for the confrontations between Marcus and Dean Caudwell.

    Portrayed by Killer Joe playwright and actor Letts, Caudwell seems like a reasonable man – until he’s tested with an opinion that he happens to disagree with. The interplay between himself and Lerman is tense but calm, angry but civilised. There’s a lengthy scene between them about half-way through which encapsulates the film as a whole. School teaches you what to think. University should challenge you to think outside the box and not accept something because it’s there and there’s nothing more to it. Well, not in this time period and society. Fast forward 20 years to the more liberal 1970s and Marcus might have a better time with his beliefs. Lerman is an often under-rated actor who has clearly moved well out of the shadow of his signature role as Percy Jackson. This might push the 24-year-old in the right direction towards more mature roles. Gadon is in good support too, pulling off a tricky balance between being sympathetic and off-putting at the same time.

    Indignation is an auspicious debut for Schamus. It’s very well acted, has a well-balanced tone, good pacing, some thought-provoking dilemmas and a cautious love story which feels so wrong and yet so right. For once, here’s a Roth adaptation which is fully satisfying and skillfully navigates his particular world view with ease. It’s on a very limited release, but is worth seeking out. ****