Shortly after his retirement from writing in 2012, Philip Roth was heralded as one of the greatest writers of his time. His work has been adapted to film a number of times, to varying degrees of success, but the novelist himself has admitted that James Schamus’ Indignation is the most faithful interpretation of his work he has seen. The film takes place in 1951, on the campus of Ohio’s Weinburg College, as young critical thinker Marcus (Logan Lerman) enters the academic world, full of enthusiasm, only to be faced with anti-Semitism, sexual repression and contempt from the authority figures of the college.
Roth’s novels are celebrated for asking big questions and feature characters who struggle with metaphysical issues. Schamus’ focus on depicting intellectual debate is the film’s biggest strength, but also its most glaring weakness. Though scenes where the camera breathlessly captures long bouts of verbal sparring are captivating, for the most part the actors struggle with a verbose script and fail to build convincing connections between characters. We see Lerman play the role a little too sheepishly, but when he is compelled to take a stand for his ideals by the dean, Schamus allows 15 minutes for the stunning tête-à-tête to blow up.
Visually, Schamus seems content with a straightforward period aesthetic, but the remarkable set design of shows like Mad Men has raised the bar, and Schamus has definitely taken note. From costumes to props, the film is littered with intricate details that help vividly cement it within the period.
The romantic interest, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gaddon), has the potential to subvert tropes and create surprises, but after their first encounter where she opens Marcus’ mind sexually, the character is neglected and underdeveloped as Schamus focuses on academic matters instead. Despite some minor shortcomings, Indignation succeeds where other Roth adaptations have fallen in capturing the novelist’s use of American history to comment on its present, and the bittersweet ending leaves a haunting final note that endures.
Indignation does not yet have an official UK release date.
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