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indignation

D: James Schamus / 111m

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

In New Jersey in the early Fifties, Marcus Messner (Lerman), the son of a local butcher, has been awarded a scholarship to attend Winesburg College in Ohio. His father (Burstein) is over-protective and fearful that something will happen to Marcus when he’s there, but Marcus is having none of it; he can’t wait to get away. At Winesburg he finds himself boarding with two other Jewish students, Ron Foxman (Ettinger) and Bertram Flusser (Rosenfield). He throws himself into his studies, takes on a job at the college library, and generally keeps himself to himself. He doesn’t socialise, and when he’s offered a chance to join a largely Jewish fraternity, he refuses.

Marcus is drawn out of his self-contained world by the presence of Olivia Hutton (Gadon), an elegant fellow student he’s immediately attracted to. He plucks up the courage to ask her out on a date; at the evening’s end, Olivia surprises him by doing something so unexpected that he doesn’t know what to think of Olivia, or how to assimilate what happened within his limited experience of girls. He decides to avoid Olivia while he comes to a decision about how he feels, but this has the consequence of Olivia believing he doesn’t like her. Simmering tensions with his roommates come to a head in the meantime, and his decision to find alternative lodging within the college brings him to the attention of the dean, Hawes D. Caudwell (Letts). During a meeting between them, the conversation becomes heated, with Marcus decrying some of Winesburg’s traditions, including the mandatory attendance of chapel each week, especially as Marcus regards himself as an atheist. As he attempts to leave, he collapses and ends up in hospital thanks to a ruptured appendix.

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Olivia makes several visits, and their relationship develops further. She reveals a secret about herself, one that complicates matters when he receives a visit from his mother (Emond) as well. The two women are introduced to each other, which makes an initially nervous Marcus quite happy. But his mother warns him that he should have nothing further to do with Olivia, a piece of advice that he ignores once he’s allowed out of the hospital. But his pursuit of Olivia, and his making a foolish decision in relation to attending chapel, leads to another encounter with the Dean, one that will have far-reaching consequences.

Adaptations of novels by Philip Roth have proven a mixed bunch in recent years, with the likes of Elegy (2008) and The Humbling (2014) receiving a lukewarm welcome with critics and audiences alike. And at first, Indignation seems as if it’s going to buck the trend of its predecessors. It opens with a sequence set during the Korean War, with Korean soldiers attempting to kill a US soldier. The soldier appears to avoid being killed, and we’re then transported to Newark and the funeral of a young Jewish soldier. We meet Marcus, fresh-faced, and anxious to get away from the stifling attention of his father. He’s well-liked in the neighbourhood, obviously bright, and will be the first Messner to attend college. It’s a neat, concise set up, and writer-director Schamus introduces us to the Messners and their milieu with a minimum of effort and a maximum of probity.

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Once at Winesburg, though, and Schamus’s efforts begin to unravel. Marcus becomes a withdrawn, mirthless individual, and not without a degree of arrogance about his manner. This change of character is disturbing, as it challenges the viewer’s ability to feel sympathy for Marcus as the movie unfolds. His interaction with his fellow roommates borders on petulant, while he pursues Olivia with an eagerness that borders on obsession (he’s won over by the sight of her bare leg dangling over the arm of a chair). Only his inexperience with girls and obvious social naïvete spares him from being regarded as a jerk, but it’s a close run thing. His dismay at Olivia’s behaviour only adds to the impression of Marcus as a bemused but intolerant, shallow young man, and Schamus doesn’t do enough to offset that belief with anything more convincing or conclusive.

The encounter between Marcus and Dean Caudwell is the movie’s highlight, a near-fifteen minute masterclass in screen acting and writing that eclipses everything that comes before and after it. It’s somewhat of a shame that the scene is that good, because it exposes Marcus’s contempt for the college, and his disaffection with everything around him. This is where the “indignation” of the title is supposed to be revealed, from Marcus being made to do things that he doesn’t like or want to do (like join a fraternity), and railing against them. But Marcus’s indignation is misplaced and misappropriated; he’s an angry young man fighting for what he believes is just and right, but based on too little experience of life and the demands it can make on a person. He’s the classic angry young man/anti-authority figure, cocksure and heading for a fall.

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And so it plays out, with Schamus guiding Marcus – and the viewer – to an inevitable downfall, one where Roth, via Schamus, reveals the truth behind Marcus’s animosity: that he’s the victim of his own poor choices, and has no one else to blame but himself. There’s a wider argument: that when we make decisions we do so mostly without giving those decisions proper consideration, and Marcus’s story is a perfect example. But in adapting Roth’s novel, Schamus – known as a screenwriter and making his directorial debut here – pares back the drama so that there are long stretches where Marcus’s search for recognition (of his needs in others) occupies too much screen time. The tentative romance between Marcus and Olivia is also an issue, as Olivia’s dialogue is almost entirely given over to evasive, tissue-thin comments about relationships, and sidestepping questions about herself. And there’s a grim inevitability to it all that Schamus isn’t able to hide or exploit, despite the tragedy that surrounds her.

Thankfully, Schamus is well-served by his cast. Lerman, who despite appearances in movies such as Noah (2014) and Fury (2014), still carries the aura of being Percy Jackson with him, here embraces Marcus’s faults and growing cynicism with such confidence that it’s perhaps his most intuitive and perceptive performance to date. He’s not able to engender too much sympathy as Marcus, but perhaps that’s the point, that Marcus shouldn’t be too likeable, because if he was, his attitude and displeasure with college life (and much else) wouldn’t be as strident. In support, Gadon is radiant, her blonde hair, marbled skin and ruby red lips – such perfection – covering a damaged soul whose emotional needs are unlikely to ever be met. And then there’s Letts, his stern yet worryingly blank features proving the perfect foil for Lerman’s anguished expressions in their mid-movie encounter, his stillness and slightly menacing approach to his dialogue adding unexpected layers to the performance.

While Indignation does touch on elements and notions of anti-semitism, sexual mores, and the wider political and social worries of the time, including the shadow of the Korean War, at its heart it’s the story of a broken romance. Marcus and Olivia are a good match, one of them with too little experience of the world, one with too much; one of them has yet to make any real, life-changing decisions in their life, the other has made one too many. Again, as Roth says, it all comes down to choices, and when we make them, how we respond when they don’t work out. The consequence for Marcus can be seen at the movie’s end, and if there’s a degree of justice in that consequence, then should we be surprised?

Rating: 7/10 – with too many of its source novel’s subtleties and nuances jettisoned in favour of a more straightforward retelling, Indignation doesn’t have the impact that it should, and as a result, it only delivers emotionally and/or dramatically on a few, isolated occasions; bolstered by a trio of very good performances, and a feel for the period that helps ground the narrative, the movie struggles to make you care about Marcus or his “indignation”, and is only gripping when Marcus and the Dean go toe to toe.

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