Screen adaptations of writer Philip Roth have always proven tricky. Of his 32 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 (come on – all Jewish boys identify with Richard Benjamin in his trunks 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. Although it’s not the disaster some are making it out to be, one of Roth’s greatest books isn’t quite matched for heavyweight status on the screen. Ewan McGregor is hard to take as a Jewish sports star, even if his character “The Swede” is trying to assimilate and marries a beauty queen (cold fish Jennifer Connelly).
American Pastoral starts well but drifts badly as it attempts to convey the passage of time and McGregor’s shining face isn’t up to the task of storing up all that Roth anger and sadness, not while he’s directing the movie too. Still, he did a decent enough job to get another stab at it, I reckon.
At the same time, industry veteran James Schamus also makes his directing debut, with Indignation, adapting Roth’s 2008 book, and it’s probably the best of the lot. Indignation opened the UK Jewish Film Festival and it’s one of the best films to do so. It also seems to me to be the first film, at least since Columbus, brave enough to “get” the particular Jewishness of Roth, the way it haunts his lead characters’ identity and morality, how he can never shed it. never escape it, even if you move to Ohio.
After a long and illustrious career running the well-regarded Focus Features outfit, producing movies and writing scripts for Ang Lee (including great American literary adaptations Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm), Schamus finally 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 (he lead the Percy Jackson series of movies, which I hope you won’t have seen) really comes of age with a terrific performance as Marcus Messner, son of a kosher butcher from New Jersey who takes up a scholarship in far-off Ohio, at the very conservative Winesberg College.
Going to study will keep Marcus from being drafted into the Korean war and will also get him away from his increasingly 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.
The intense 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 the pair 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 dealt with like tennis balls, pinged back and forth. It’s one of the scenes of the year. and ends with someone being sick on the carpet.
However, Messner’s real wrong turn – his “pivotal moment” – comes in falling for a beautiful unstable WASP, Olivia Hutton, a fabulous performance from Sarah Gadon, the Canadian actress known for David Cronenberg movies and for playing our Queen in that odd little skit of a movie, A Royal Night Out, when the young Princesses went out celebrating on VE Day. She’s marvellous here, brittle, alluring, sophisticated, forbidden – a classic Roth woman – whom 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 its own integrity and mood. 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 straight away and warns her son off this 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 as a movie, it’s a wonderful, pitiful watch.