Saturday, September 10, 2016

THE INGENUE OF THE YEAR IS SARAH GADON

Original caricature by Jeff York of Sarah Gadon in INDIGNATION (copyright 2016).

Before April of 2015, how many moviegoers knew who actress Alicia Vikander was? But then, when EX MACHINA opened later that month and became a huge hit for such a small film - it was the number one film in limited release its opening weekend - the world knew her. Suddenly, Vikander became the new “It Girl.” Eight months later THE DANISH GIRL opened, Vikander received more raves, and she was on her way to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Things can happen quickly for a talented ingénue.

This year’s Alicia Vikander may very well be Sarah Gadon. You may not have heard of her yet, or even seen her perform, but she’s been appearing in a lot of high profile roles over the last couple of years and her latest is in this year’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s acclaimed 2008 novel INDIGNATION. It may be the film that finally gets her the acclaim and fame she deserves.

Gadon should have been a major star three years ago. She won kudos and a Best Supporting Actress Genie Award (the Canadian Oscar) for her role as Jake Gyllenhaal’s conflicted wife in ENEMY. Playing the pregnant Helen, she conveyed strength, vulnerability and suspicion over the actions of her man and his doppelganger. (Actually, it was the same man. The twist of the story is that it's the two sides of her wayward hubby.) Unfortunately, for as great as that film was, few got to appreciate her sharp performance in it because the distributor barely opened it in New York and LA, let alone the fly-over states.

Sarah Gadon in ENEMY (2013).
Still, Hollywood did take notice and kept casting her in prominent roles. The young actress nabbed the role of Vlad’s bride in DRACULA UNTOLD last year. And then she received a ton of acclaim this year for her ingénue role as Sadie in Hulu’s first miniseries 11-22-63. Based on the Stephen King bestseller about a man who time-travels back to the early '60’s to stop the Kennedy assassination, she took “the girl” part and turned an almost cliche role into something slyer and fierce. Gadon infuses all of the roles with a similar backbone. She may be often cast in the wife or girlfriend role, but she always brings more to the part than is written on the page.

Gadon uses her beautiful, wide-set eyes to convey all the intelligence and strength inside her. It’s what makes even her most vulnerable roles unique. Her characters are often dealing with dominating males, but there is always something going on in those eyes. Something shrewd, something wise and knowing. And she may be petite, standing only 5’3”, but her body language is steady, grounded, and mature. She may play young women, but they're never spring chickens.

Sarah Gadon with James Franco in this year's Hulu miniseries 11-22-63.
Her arsenal of talent is now on full display in INDIGNATION, the best role she’s had yet. She plays Olivia Hutton, one of Philip Roth’s most fascinating female characters, a woman both reticent and aggressive, careful, yet blithe. It’s one of the best performances in a film this year and it helps make INDIGNATION one of the year’s best films as well.

Philip Roth is a tricky writer to adapt to the screen because his prose describing characters’ inner thoughts cannot be brought to the screen unless the soundtrack were to be filled with narration. But such techniques go against the grain of the first rule of moviemaking - show, don’t tell. But this adaptation works brilliantly because while it doesn’t recreate Roth’s words, it does faithfully convey the characters’ thoughts through nuanced and detailed performances that tell us everything. And the scenes and the editing lets these characters breathe, taking time to convey their words, and the camera never cuts away from a face that is thinking. In fact, it's one of the shrewdest editing jobs in a film this year for how long it lingers on characters after they've stopped talking. All the better to show the audience each character's own reaction to what they just said.

Writer/director James Schamus really understands the material here, and in Gadon he has an amazing actress who gets it too. And he truly understands what makes her so powerful onscreen. He understands that Gadon's physicality, her face, and her eyes tell the audience so, so much. Especially when she is speaking nary a word. She's great at dialogue, but she says more without it.

Sarah Gadon as Olivia Hutton in INDIGNATION.
INDIGNATION is a mournful tale, almost an elegy really, about the rise and fall of a young Jewish student during his first year of college. The title comes from the resentment that Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) feels as he’s expected to conform to school rules, as well as the demands from his smothering New Jersey parents (Danny Burstein, Linda Emond) even though they're thousands of miles away. And in that freshman year, in his battles with authority, he makes some very immature decisions. They’re decisions that end up ruining his life, as well as that of Olivia.

Marcus first notices her in the college library. Her one leg is propped over the arm of a chair as she casually reads her textbook. The gentle swaying of it back and forth mesmerizes him. To such an uptight virgin as Marcus, her relaxed sensuality is both alluring and a bit off-putting. His burgeoning lust wants her, but the respectable kosher butcher's boy in him doesn’t like that a woman is quite that overt. (This is a constant theme of Roth’s throughout his writing, the battle between desire and decorum.)

Sarah Gadon with Logan Lerman in INDIGNATION.
To observe her, Olivia appears to be the all-American girl. But she isn't. She may be perfectly dressed, with her cute sweaters, poodle skirts and saddle shoes, but that's just window dressing. Meanwhile, her eyes convey a worldliness that is not so innocent. They actually betray her complex and damaged past from the time before she entered college. And all of this, Gadon juxtaposes exquisitely in her performance.

She gets to play such a range in this character, a far more complex ingenue than is usually seen onscreen. Sometimes Olivia’s eyes are innocent, and then in a flash, her carnality comes through, like when she decides to perform fellatio on a shocked Marcus at the end of their first date on campus. But mostly Olivia's eyes convey sadder emotions swirling around in her head. Those eyes look away with great pain as she recounts her suicide attempt to him. They're incredulous when he pushes her away, even when they're getting along and their rapport is unmistakable. They see a lot and express a lot. And Gadon is in step with every one of her character's moods.

Marcus, on the other hand, has difficulty managing his feelings. He desires her, yet he resents her sexual proclivity. He enjoys her company as a friend, but part of him seems to like her for the idea of challenging his parents as she's a shiksha. And even when she becomes his bonafide girlfriend, doting on him in the hospital after his appendix bursts, he still cannot bring himself to be honest with anyone about just how he feels about her. He rejects her in so many ways throughout the story and it's heartbreaking.

Gadon and Lerman in INDIGNATION.
Roth always imbues his work with  heavy symbolism. Indeed, Olivia may be the most obvious of symbols in INDIGNATION. She represents the modern world, a forward-thinking, progressive new age that Marcus cannot fathom entirely, let alone embrace. He may want to defy his old school parents, but he clings to plenty of remnants from their archaic belief system too.

And the flowers that she brings to Marcus in the hospital are a perfect symbol for their relationship. She nurtures the flowers, always placing them in pitchers, and arranging them just so. She nurtures their relationship too. And both the flowers and their coupling come to fruition in that hospital room. The roses open up, as does Marcus. He and Olivia share an intimacy not seen before - one of mind, body and soul. But flowers don’t last very long, do they? What a brilliant symbol of how quickly their life together will wither as well.

Gadon is amazing in these scenes, conveying all kinds of emotion. Interestingly, most every scene she has is a reaction scene. She is reacting to what Marcus puts out and sometimes it's very contradictory. Her eyes watch his, searching for something definitive, but it’s almost no use as he cannot commit to one way of acting or another. Marcus just doesn’t realize how wonderful she is, and he continues to push her away, even when you think he may be finally committing. He's a coward in many ways, failing to stand up to his mother who wants him to leave Olivia because of her past and her reputation as a troubled girl. He fails to defend her, himself, and dooms their relationship. And in doing so, he dooms her. 

Filmmaker James Schamus with Gadon and Lerman on set.
He also dooms himself, of course. At the end, Marcus’ mistakes wreck everything. His battles with the dean (Tracy Letts) get him expelled. His loathing of his family for their interference causes him to run away and join the war in Korea. And his rejection of Olivia hurls her towards a nervous breakdown and a complete withdrawal from school. All of this will become apparent to him, but it's a self-awareness he only achieves from beyond the grave.

And yet, at the end, we mostly feel sorry for Olivia. The way she’s written and the way Gadon plays her makes the audience feel the most for her. She was worth fighting for. Certainly more so than Marcus’ battle over Bertrand Russell, or the idea of shirking his clinging parents, or joining the war effort to fight a misguided conflict in Asia. When the film ends, the audience is left bereft, contemplating this well-meaning woman whom Marcus hurt so terribly. We think of her, and the great performance by Sarah Gadon playing her. Her characterization of Olivia Hutton will haunt us for a very, very long time. 

Actress Sarah Gadon walks the red carpet.

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