A brave gamble as screenwriter and producer James Schamus makes his directorial debut.


Sarah Gadon


It's a brave endeavour whenever an established screenwriter takes to directing and here James Schamus proves doubly daring. That's because Indignation, his directorial feature debut, finds him also adapting a novel by Philip Roth whose work has notoriously resisted being transposed into good cinema. In assessing the extent of Schamus's achievement, I should admit at the outset that I have not read any of Roth's celebrated novels, but judging Indignation simply by what is on the screen I would count it as closer to a hit than to a miss and it is a properly literate work.


The story is mainly set at Winesburg College in Ohio in the year 1951 and the film's evocation of that period is deftly handled. At the outset the funeral of a young man in New Jersey reminds us that this was the time   when many Americans were dying in the Korean War. However, Marcus (Logan Lerman) would seem set to escape that fate because by winning a scholarship to Winesburg he is no longer eligible to be drafted. Going there provides the opportunity for this studious youth to get away from his excessively fussy and controlling father (Danny Burstein) and to discover that there are girls at the College, such as the sometimes enigmatic Olivia (Sarah Gadon), who are eager to introduce him to sexual experiences that he would never have found in New Jersey.


An opening voice-over ponders on fate and on events that can lead to one being in the situation in which one will meet one's death. Nevertheless, despite that note being struck, there is a lot of humour here and not least in the film's convincing portrait of the continuing widespread acceptance of traditional attitudes in that era: the dean (Tracy Letts) might disapprove of sexual activity among his students but is equally aghast on discovering that Marcus, a Jew, is an atheist. Their two scenes of confrontation are comic highlights played in a highly original register. Elsewhere, when the mother (Linda Emond) - a more sympathetic figure than Marcus's father by far - exerts her own pressure on her son and insists that he break off with Olivia, the set-up is rather different: her attitude is entirely understandable but has tragic consequences all the same.


Lerman may lack the intensity that Olivia claims to see in Marcus, but even so his is a persuasive central performance admirably supported by Gadon, Letts and Emond. Schamus does bring his film to a particularly neat end (no hanging on too long), yet overall his direction too often lacks imagination as in the treatment of the big scenes between Lerman and Letts. It may be for that reason that Indignation despite its many good points seems ultimately to lack the weight that would make it memorable.




Cast: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield, Pico Alexander, Philip Ettinger, Noah Robbins.


Dir James Schamus, Pro Anthony Bregman, James Schamus and Rodrigo Teixeira, Screenplay James Schamus, from the novel by Philip Roth, Ph Christopher Blauvelt, Pro Des Inbal Weinberg, Ed Andrew Marcus, Music Jay Wadley, Costumes Amy Roth.


RT Features/BFB Entertainment/Likely Story/Symbolic Exchange-Vertigo Films.
111 mins. USA/Brazil/People's Republic of China/Germany. 2015. Rel: 18 November 2016. Cert. 15.