Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) is a professor of French literature who finds himself in America in the 1940s, renting a room from a lonely widow (Melanie Griffith). He eventually marries the woman, but this is mostly because he is obsessed with her 14 year-old daughter Lolita (Dominique Swain), which the older woman eventually discovers. When tragedy strikes, Humbert finds himself the guardian of Lolita, and basically thinks he has won the lottery. But is this young girl both vixen and virgin? She certainly seems to be aware of her power over men, despite her age. Frank Langella plays the mysterious Quilty, a sinister paedophile who may or may not be trying to take Lolita away from Humbert.
I’ve never read the Vladimir Nabokov novel, but I love the Stanley Kubrick film version from 1962, and this 1997 version from Adrian Lyne (“9 ½ Weeks”, “Flashdance”, “Fatal Attraction”) and writer Stephen Schiff (a magazine writer in his film writing debut) is a solid effort too. Seeing it for the first time some fifteen years after its release, however, I must say I didn’t find it terribly shocking or controversial, and don’t care if it’s more faithful to Nabokov’s text. I have no idea why it’s R-rated in Australia (Frank Langella’s penis?) nor why it took two years to make it to our cinemas here. Obviously the themes of paedophilia will still make it a film that divides audiences, as with previous versions of the story, but I reckon it could’ve (note I didn’t say should’ve) gone further. Perhaps it’s just an indication of how much has changed between 1997 and 2012 because I think Lyne could’ve gotten away with a lot more here than what he shows on screen. The only way this film would be controversial today would be if it were directed by Roman Polanski or Victor Salva. But I’m not really criticising the film for that, just curiously observing it.
I must say that the film is long enough that it really didn’t need a back-story on Humbert that we didn’t get in the Kubrick film. It’s a bit half-arsed in explaining Humbert’s predilection for young girls, to be honest (Unless you think young boys liking young girls is akin to old men liking young girls, in which case, your name is clearly Humbert Humbert). It’s perhaps important to Nabokov enthusiasts (though it seems rather truncated to me), but I didn’t much care for it, though it’s a relatively minor issue. Apparently Nabokov wasn’t fussed about it either, because he adapted his own novel for the Kubrick version without that back-story!
Aside from the title role (which I’ll get to later) the biggest differences for me between this film and the Kubrick one, are the casting of Melanie Griffith and the role of Quilty. Griffith is a terrible actress, even worse than her mother Tippi Hedren, but I figured that if ever a role would suit her, one previously played by Shelley Winters would surely be it. No doubt about it, it’s the best performance of her career, but she is still the weakest of the film’s three leads. She is suitably gauche and shrill, but Winters had a pathetic quality about her that Griffith lacks. Meanwhile, a movie star to the end, Griffith seemingly was unwilling to deglamorise herself for the role, and looks far too good to be playing this rather aging, needy woman. She looks like a 50s siren, for cryin’ out loud.
The character of Quilty (and Frank Langella’s performance) is extremely problematic for me here. I have no idea how it’s written in the book, but in the Kubrick version Peter Sellers walked off with his every scene in a bizarre, semi-comic, creepy turn. He seemed to be a more constant presence in that film than Langella does here, in little more than a cameo. I can’t be certain without looking back at the earlier film how much the character was in the film, but Sellers certainly resonated much more than Langella does here. Langella’s Quilty is much more overtly paedophilic, but is also really heavy-handed, with Langella (who looks a tad like James Mason, actually- intentional?) initially shrouded in sinister shadow, rather stupidly. Perhaps the contrast/comparison between he and Humbert has some potential, but Lyne doesn’t play that up enough. Instead of being pervasive and sleazy, Quilty’s overtly sinister but infrequently used. And that last part is most important, because while I never expected Frank Langella to be like Peter Sellers (Sellers added black comedy to the film that I doubt Langella would be remotely capable of), I did expect him to be as much of a presence in the film, and it hurts the film. It won’t bother fans of the novel so much, as apparently the role was beefed up in the Kubrick version, but I review films, not books, and it bothered me. In the Kubrick version you got the feeling that Lolita was using both Humbert and Quilty (and don’t forget, the story is from Humbert’s possibly tainted point of view), but because Quilty is barely in this, you lose that here.
Jeremy Irons is an actor I’ve always found cold, unpleasant, and frightfully dull. He’s a charismatic black hole. However, perhaps even moreso than James Mason in the Kubrick film, Irons was simply born to play Humbert Humbert (Or Boris Karloff- anyone else with me on that?). To me, although I loved James Mason, Humbert really needs to be an only superficially respectable man and rather unglamorous. Irons has never been better before or since, and although Mason got the veneer of English respectability down pat, Irons is far more believably pervy and pathetic whilst also nailing the phony intellectual side of things. He’s always had a craven underbelly to him if you ask me, or at least, it’s what he projects on screen (He basically did a precursor to this character in “Stealing Beauty”, but without the paedophilia). He even, astonishingly enough, almost has you pitying Humbert, who is, to most people’s definition, a monster. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the guy deserved an Oscar nomination for this. Perhaps the role was too controversial for Hollywood to recognise at the time.
Dominique Swain, like Irons, isn’t a favourite of mine, but this is quite a commendable screen debut for sure. Too old or not, I still prefer Sue Lyon in the Kubrick film, as she seemed much more of an aloof manipulator than Swain and always kept you guessing. However, Swain is suitably...well, underage (Swain was 15 when filming began). Like it or not, that’s the role of Lolita, and Humbert even goes out of his way to explain that Lolita (who wears braces) is not a classic beauty, making it pretty clear that he’s not interested in what is the norm, so in that sense Swain is effective. However, because Swain plays the role as much more of a child (and her casting is the most controversial thing in the film), it does mean that Lolita comes off as more of a victim than she did in the more complex Kubrick interpretation, which bothered me a bit. Not as much of an issue as the change to Quilty, but certainly not as interesting to me as in the Kubrick film, though there is still a touch of aloofness to Swain’s Lolita, don’t get me wrong. Like I said earlier, I was surprised at how tame the scenes between Humbert and Lolita are here. There’s never any real clear nudity from Swain, perhaps understandably. It’s certainly not something I was hoping to see, but I was a bit surprised that basically all we got (on screen, at any rate) were a few kisses between the two. Don’t get me wrong, that’s more than the 1962 version was allowed to get away with, but there was a reason why that film included the toenail-painting scene- it was an attempt to imply what it couldn’t really show. So why is Swain seen painting her toenails in this one too? It shouldn’t be necessary in this film, and I’m surprised the director of “9 ½ Weeks” lacked balls, though to be fair it was likely beyond his control.
Ennio Morricone (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, “Once Upon a Time in the West”) contributes a nice score for the film, but it’s more akin to Claudia Cardinale’s them in “Once Upon a Time in the West” than say, ‘The Man With the Harmonica’ from the same film.
This is a solid and respectable adaptation, but I think Kubrick’s version is more entertaining. Whether that is important or not is up to the individual, but for me, it’s important. It might be smut, but boy is it attractive smut, with excellence in production design, costumes, and cinematography. Definitely worth a look so long as you can stomach the premise. It certainly doesn’t condone paedophilia, the story is a tragedy.