Lolita (1997)

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Arriving in Ramsdale to prepare for a new college term, literature professor Humbert Humbert is distracted by Dolores or Lolita, the daughter of amorous landlady Charlotte Haze. Through a strange, devious and ultimately tragic turn of events, Humbert becomes Lolita’s stepfather when she is orphaned, which does nothing to stop the relationship becoming physical. However, outside forces and Humbert’s own mental disintegration ensure their ‘honeymoon’ is short-lived.

Desirous of quietude to work on a translation during his summer holiday, middle-aged English literature professor Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) is alarmed by the forwardness of would-be landlady Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith).  He’s just about to make his excuses when he sets eyes on Charlotte’s lissom fourteen-year old daughter Lolita (Dominique Swain) and decides to stay. While Charlotte does all she can to make an impression on Humbert, her daughter captivates the professor; and even when she’s packed off to camp and Charlotte gives the lodger an ultimatum – marry me or go – his decisions are driven by getting to see Lolita again.

The Humberts’ marriage is cut short when Charlotte, having discovered her husband’s true opinion of her, is killed in a car accident; however, rather than bring Lolita home and tell all, he delays the truth with a road trip that takes a dark, sexual turn. Half-guardian, half-abuser, Humbert tries to keep Lolita all to himself; but she knows how to take advantage of his obsession, and there is always a mysterious figure lurking just behind them…

Adrian Lyne’s version of Lolita puts me in a difficult position vis à vis the Stanley Kubrick film of 1962: for while this film is – thanks to a more liberal attitude to censorship (at least until just before the film’s release) – undoubtedly more faithful to Nabokov’s novel (which, I much stress, I’ve still not read), that doesn’t make it a more palatable experience. Or to put it another way, where Kubrick was discreet but perforce dishonest, Lyne is unflinching and therefore infinitely more unsettling.

The key difference comes in the depiction of Lolita’s role in the relationship with Humbert. Sue Lyon’s youngster was, for any number of reasons, a mostly passive on-screen presence; Swain’s Lolita takes a much more active role in the relationship, whether it’s instigating the kissing after camp or – much later on – demanding money for use of her body. Like it or loathe it, that’s the story; the sticking point is the way Lyne tells it. The director enjoys pointing the camera at Swain in a way that (I presume) echoes Humbert’s narration in Nabokov’s tale, and this often makes for squeamish watching.

The more intimate work was done with stand-ins, body-doubles and barriers to keep a respectable distance between the actors, but even so you have to wonder why the scene of Humbert and Lolita on the rocking chair had to be shot like an out-take from Nine ½ Weeks, even allowing for the fact that it’s immediately followed by a scene of the girl’s distress – the difference between Humbert’s delusions and the grim reality of the situation. I’d hesitate to call anything about the film gratuitous; on the other hand, its sensual tone is icky with a fourteen-year old girl in the picture (Swain was slightly older during filming) and I despair at the thought of Nabokov’s 12-year-old – though it is, of course, only a book.

Nonetheless, while I can understand many finding the story itself unacceptable, the overall impression of Lyne’s Lolita is that of a serious stab at filming all of the novel, reflected in the often magnificent period details and loftily literate narration. For better or worse, the film gives a thorough account of Humbert’s life, including the supposed origins of his obsession with ‘nymphets’; and in Jeremy Irons, it has a star with the gravitas to convey Humbert’s disgusting bliss and subsequent disintegration.

Opposite Irons, Dominique Swain convincingly plays the young girl corrupted by those around her, even if she doesn’t overcome the Lolita as an adult problem; like her predecessor Lyon, she looks like a young girl, in glasses, with a cushion up her jumper (on a pifflingly trivial note, long-limbed Swain is patently not ‘four feet ten in one sock’). Though their scenes together often involve sickening behaviour (mostly – but not only – from Humbert), their weird relationship lives on the screen every bit as much as Mason and Lyon’s.

However, things are not so accomplished on the margins. Whether miscast or misdirected, Melanie Griffith’s Charlotte Haze is pretty hopeless, failing to capture even a fraction of Shelley Winters’ deep, dipsomaniac desperation. Griffith’s colourlessness sets the first portion of the film at a distinct disadvantage compared to Kubrick’s vibrant opening act, and she’s not the only disappointment: if Quilty was often absent from Kubrick’s film, he barely even emerges from the shadows here, though Frank Langella effectively replaces Sellers’ comic instincts with murky menace, sacrificing suavity for a literally naked horror. The heavy, humourless tone of the piece also makes it feel very long, notably during the road trip section where Lolita is dragged from motel to motel.

Perhaps more than anything, this Lolita suffers – and suffer it did, making back a fraction of its near-$60m budget – from the director’s reputation: could it possibly be taken at face value when Flashdance and Indecent Proposal, amongst others, were so excitable about the female form? To me – with one or two specific exceptions – it’s a well-intentioned attempt to visualise a novel which doesn’t benefit from an honest portrayal, especially in modern times when paedophilia is an increasingly sensitive issue. To that extent, sincere or not, Lyne’s big-budget disaster was every bit as mistimed as Kubrick – every frame the dirty old man in Eyes Wide Shut – was fortuitous to be constrained by the early 60s.

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