WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Looking for a place to stay in Ramsdale, literature professor Humbert Humbert is persuaded to stay with clingy widow Charlotte Haze by the charms of her daughter Dolores, known as Lolita. Humbert is fascinated with Lolita to the extent that he marries Charlotte just to stay in town, horribly abusing his stepfather status when events take a tragic turn. However, charismatic writer Clare Quilty seems hell bent on making Humbert’s life a misery; not that it does him much good…
Professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason), poetry lover and expert in translating French works, arrives in Ramsdale looking for a place to prepare for his college position in Ohio later in the year. First stop is the house of Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), a widow of seven years whose immediate, overbearing interest in Humbert almost sends him fleeing; until, that is, he sets eyes on young Lolita (Sue Lyon) sunbathing in the garden. Humbert takes the room and suffers Charlotte’s advances, mocking them in a diary while he acquaints himself with the daughter.
For the mother, three’s a crowd and she packs Lolita off to camp, telling Humbert to leave unless he requites her feelings; it’s a sick joke to him, but he marries Charlotte anyway, becoming Lolita’s ward when her mother’s hit by a car. With a string of lies and manipulations – withholding the truth of Charlotte’s death from her daughter – Humbert gets what he wants from Lolita, though it’s hardly a ticket to happiness for either of them. Devious and chameleon-like TV writer Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) is determined to see to that, offering the young girl a chance to escape – but to what?
Sensitivities around child abuse fluctuate, and for many the story of an attraction – let alone physical relationship – between a man and a girl will be unacceptable, even in fiction or film. However, reasonable people shouldn’t be afraid of Kubrick’s Lolita, scripted by Vladimir Nabokov from his own novel (which, I must say, I’ve not read). It’s very aware of what it is and isn’t allowed to show, or even suggest, not giving Lolita an age and being careful to avoid active flirtation on her part: masculine interest is all part of a game for her.
Anyway, it’s not really about Lolita at all*: the subject of Lolita is firmly Humbert. An opportunist, a user, then a devious groomer with the luck of the devil, Humbert is ruined by his obsession, not so much for possession of Lolita’s body but for absolute control over her will. There’s even some darkly ironic satisfaction to be gained from Humbert’s acute chagrin that, having devoted all his energies on keeping Lolita away from boys her own age, her true object of affection is an equally grubby, though faintly more exotic, middle-aged man.
But none of this says much about the movie. As he would throughout his career, Kubrick visualises Lolita with absolute detachment, allowing Humbert’s cruelty to speak for itself. Before he starts on his step-daughter, his mistreatment of poor Charlotte Haze is wicked, though she doesn’t help herself by throwing herself at Humbert in imitation of the fevered, jaded sexuality of her friends, the ‘very broad minded’ Farlows – emphasising Lolita’s assumed purity at the same time. Quilty, too, revels in piling discomfort on Humbert’s pained shoulders, though his cruelty is much more suave and refined than the increasingly tortured Humbert. As the professor’s obsession increasingly takes on physical symptoms, Mason becomes ever more twitchy and brilliant; Lyon – to a point – walks the fine line between girlishness and womanhood with aplomb, a significant achievement considering she was fourteen at the time; and Shelley Winters is perfectly pathetic as the desperate widow, trying so hard to be loved by the wrong man. Look out for a non-Bonded appearance by Lois Maxwell, too.
Then you have Peter Sellers, obviously a favourite of the director. His Quilty is a curiously carefree creature, forever verging on being inappropriately comic; yet his fascinatingly louche, chameleon-like turn retains enough menace to work, even as the silly Dr Zempf. On this evidence, Sellers was an actor who trusted his own instincts at every turn; in this instance, his instincts are mostly correct, as are Kubrick’s in letting Sellers fly.
Not everything works, however. I said Lyon is good to a point, especially at conveying Lolita’s emotional immaturity; the point at which she’s found wanting is in the final act, when she plays the older, worldly-wise woman: simply wearing a pair of glasses doesn’t get the job done. The film also suffers from Kubrick’s lifelong problem of length – though he clearly revels in his craft, the story doesn’t need two-and-a-half-hours to be told. At this length, Winters is out of the picture for too long, and Sellers feels more like a series of cameos than a constant presence.
There’s not enough tension in Quilty’s torment of Humbert, either, since we know – even if Humbert doesn’t – that it’s Sellers every time. That said, Kubrick is in complete command of tone. At the film’s most threatening, uncomfortable moment, when Humbert and Lolita are alone in the hotel room for the first time, he introduces an absurd but brilliant piece of farce with the slapstick business of the folding bed, deflating the tension – only to wrong-foot us again the following morning.
It’s not a perfect film by any means, but Lolita is too good to be dismissed as filthy or immoral. Nothing about it condones paedophilia, hebephilia or whatever you want to call it, or makes it look anything other than a creepy and desperately unhappy way of life – and that’s without the half-hearted epilogue. Additionally, by beginning with the denouement, the structure of the film pre-emptively assures us that the bad end unhappily, though the extent of each participant’s cruelty is yet to be established. Also, it’s brilliantly acted, dramatically effective, skilfully discreet and surprisingly funny, as well as influencing sincere films such as American Beauty (and pulpy ones, like Poison Ivy). And remember, watching something is not the same thing as approving of its contents; so while I deplore Humbert’s actions, motives and very thought processes**, I can recommend Lolita as an intelligent and well-made film.
NOTES: 1Some may argue that this is precisely the problem: It’s all very well for a male adult to write about these things, but he has no concept of Lolita’s experience as the victim. It’s a valid point, too, though it judges the work by 21st Century standards. ‘Younger than she are happy mothers made’, indeed.
2I know I’m labouring the point, but you can’t be too careful with these things. Plenty of people completely missed the point of Chris Morris’ notorious, and excellent, episode of Brass Eye.