James Schamus directs Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon and Tracy Letts in the Philip Roth adaptation involving a determined Jewish student’s discovery of the unfairness of compromise.
Schamus has been part of movie landscape for decades – I know and rate him best from his rather awesome collaborations with Ang Lee – strange then that he chose a lesser Roth work to unleash his long bottled up craftsmanship and deft cinematic touch on as his own debut. Indignation makes a fine companion piece to Ewan McGregor’s underrated take on American Pastoral, whereas many critics felt the actor turned new director was swamped by the epic sweep and meta narrative of the original work, here the slimmer tome gives Schamus more room to explore Roth’s very recognisable set list of lust, repression, Americanism, Jewishness, conformity and beliefs. In fact in a few (later echoed) establishing shots of rest home wallpaper and the Korean War he manages to skip smartly over the whole issue of imagined perspectives and unreliable narrators that seem to trip most Roth adaptations up. As for the plot itself, it initially feels inconsequential – there’s a sexually awkward romance with a damaged but unnervingly confident girl (Gadon stands out), family issues back home ignored, the alien environment of a passive aggressively Christian university… but then midway through comes a WOW moment… a sustained single scene of sparring dialogue, a 10 minute verbal joust between our lead and the Dean… and it wears you down like all the wars in the world are being fought over a sunlit mahogany desk. It is a captivating achievement, beautifully acted, precisely scripted and leaves you breathless. Everything that happens around it is well rendered and engrossing (if less weighty than even I care to admit… at times almost to the point of cliche) and for all Schamus’ fine direction, Gadon’s starmaking turn and that scene this should really be rated far higher by me. I guess I just preferred the overwhelming scope and reaching ambition of McGregor’s riskier punt. With Indignation you get a faultless tale oft told (there seemed one of these mid century blazer, ties, prejudice and romance bildungsromans a week in the early 90s) but we are left with a film you admire rather than love.