One of America’s most heralded living novelists, Philip Roth’s works have been notoriously difficult to successfully adapt. His novels carry an understanding of Judaism, storytelling, and the English language that several filmmakers have tried, and failed, to convey on the screen. Roth’s work is challenged once again by veteran producer/screenwriter James Schamus, who makes his directorial debut with his adaptation of Indignation.
Logan Lerman stars as Marcus Messner, a Newark-raised young man of an observant Jewish family. While his friends go off to serve in Vietnam, Marcus heads to begin his post-secondary education at Winesburg College in Ohio. Keeping mostly to himself and refusing to join the Jewish fraternity, Marcus quickly becomes enamored with his classmate, the blonde shiksa goddess Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). The two misfits form a relationship, looking past their differing ideologies on life and sex. Regardless of Marcus and Olivia’s feelings for each other, the powers that be continue to cause rifts of heartache between them.
Schamus’ understanding of Roth’s characters is one of many reasons that Indignation is the strongest Roth adaptation to date. Most of the dialogue in Schamus’ screenplay is carried over directly from the source novel, keeping the rhythem of Roth’s quickly paced conversation intact. What really makes this adaptation stand out is the way in which Schamus has expanded the character of Olivia Hutton. No longer simply existing as the projected fantasy woman of a Jewish boy, Olivia Hutton is written and performed with a force and intensity that allows the role of the protagonist to seamlessly switch from Marcus to Olivia herself. With scenes of an aged Olivia Hutton bookending the film, Schamus’ Indignation becomes as much Olivia Hutton’s story as it is Marcus Mesner’s.
Gadon has once again shown that she really can own an period role. Her Olivia Hutton feels entirely authentic, as if Gadon herself was plucked from the 1950s. She brings the necessary mystery and sense of intrigue required to nail down one of Roth’s most complex characters. Also a scene-stealer is Tracy Letts, who appears as Dean Caudwell. Letts appears in one of the film’s longest and most captivating scenes, in which is he faces off against Marcus in his office. Earning rapturous applause from the audience, the sequence is sure to be one of the most memorable of the year.
With Indignation, Schamus has directed an excellent screenplay and assembled a team of actors who have an intense understanding of the material. The film is nuanced and stirring, making the journey completely enthralling, and ultimately heartbreaking.