Monday, 30 November -0001

Indignation

James Schamus’s debut is a nuanced portrait of 1950s America and a doomed affair

Written by Jason Solomons


Screen adaptations of writer Philip roth have always proven tricky. Of his 27 novels, only seven have made it to the cinema, with mostly underwhelming results.

Naturally, I’ve always had a soft spot for 1969’s Goodbye, Columbus, identifying with Richard Benjamin at the country club lusting after Ali MacGraw in her bikini, yet, like the proverbial London buses, two new Roth movies turn up this month.

Ewan McGregor stars in and makes his debut as director in American Pastoral. Let’s just say that, although it’s no disaster, one of Roth’s greatest books isn’t quite matched on the screen. Industry veteran James Schamus also makes his directing debut with an adaptation of roth’s 2008 novel Indignation, and it’s probably the best of the lot. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

After an illustrious career running the well-regarded Focus Features outfit, producing movies and writing scripts for Ang Lee (including literary adaptations brokeback mountain and The Ice Storm), Schamus steps behind the camera to shoot a script he originally wrote for Lee, and creates a striking portrait of both 1950s America and a passionate, doomed love affair.

Teenage star Logan Lerman really comes of age with a terrific performance as Marcus Messner, son of a New Jersey kosher butcher who takes up a scholarship in far-off Ohio, at conservative Winesburg College.

Going to study will keep marcus from being drafted into the Korean war and will also get him away from his possessive father and the family business. But what we eventually witness is both the making of this young, combative Jewish intellectual and his downfall. It becomes a film about mistakes and consequences, told with bitter irony and in long, talkative scenes in which you can feel the pages of a novel turning yet remain wholly gripped by the images and voices coming off the screen.

Messner dedicates himself to his studies and to working in the library. But he takes on the Dean (icily played by Tracy Letts) in a remarkable 15-minute showdown in which they discuss the college’s policy of making students attend chapel. It grows into a blackly comic to and fro of ideas and accusations, in which anti- Semitism, atheism and morality are pinged back and forth like tennis balls. It’s one of the scenes of the year.

However, Messner’s real wrong turn comes in falling for a beautiful unstable Wasp, Olivia Hutton, a fabulous performance from Sarah Gadon, known for David Cronenberg movies and for playing our Queen In A Royal Night Out. She’s marvellous here, brittle, alluring, sophisticated, forbidden – a classic Roth woman – who Messner takes on a date to a fancy French restaurant and for whom he eats his first, very unkosher mouthful of escargot.

It turns out that’s not the only mouthful of the evening, as Olivia’s candid sexuality shocks Messner, so much he eventually ends up in hospital. And when Olivia visits him there, the nurse catches them doing something ‘sordid’.

This is such a neatly layered film, textured and nuanced, where every look and gesture has meaning, every haircut and letter sweater. Yet it’s also brilliantly, deliciously funny – not laugh-out-loud, but wicked with wit, full of cruel guilt and anger.

Messner, so taken with his own brains and arrogance, fails to notice a scar on Olivia’s wrist. His mother (the redoubtable Broadway actress Linda emond), visiting, sees it and warns her son off the affair. ‘She slit her wrists,’ she glowers. ‘One wrist,’ protests Messner. ‘One is enough,’ hisses mother. ‘The world is full of girls with two wrists.’

Instability is the big fear – Wasps can afford such luxury, immigrant Jews cannot – and yet Messner can’t help overturning the apple cart, through sexual desire, intellect, self-aggrandisement. It does not end well for anyone – all regret and withered roses – but it’s a wonderful, pitiful watch.


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