There are very few films that I can count, less certainly than the fingers on both hands, that I can truly say I am able to watch at any time. You know how it is, you can be doing something entirely different and you find yourself absent-mindedly channel hopping, then you come across something by accident that is akin to an old friend. You stop what you’re doing, possibly sit and allow yourself a wry smile, just for a minute, and that’s it, you’re lost, for however long is left of your time with them. Those beautiful, engaging, unavoidable characters that fuel your imagination and make your soul feel whole. And that is how I feel about Lolita, Adrian Lyne’s masterly production, faithfully adhering to the original work of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name.
To admit to such a thing at the time of its release would probably not have been a wise move. The film was incendiary and divisive even as recently as the end of the twentieth century. It’s subject matter is sometimes uncomfortable, and while never lurid or grotesque, the film was met with mixed critical reviews, but for some intangible reasons.
The story largely concerns itself with the lead character’s (Humbert Humbert played by Jeremy Irons) hebephilia. In some quarters, as soon as the mere mention of the name was uttered, disdain would be poured all over it. Most of these comments came from those that hadn’t actually taken the time to watch the film, clearly, as the movie is so much more than what any naysayer would have you believe.
Opening with a narrated (Irons) explanation as to why Humbert believes he feels the way he does, we are introduced to Humbert as a fourteen-year-old boy, stating that what happens to a young man in the summer of that age will stay with him forever. He falls in love with a girl who dies only months afterwards of typhus. He is shocked and ruined that his true love has been taken from him and cites this experience as the reason he falls for Dolores Haze (Dominique Swain), the beguiling and mesmerising daughter of Charlotte Haze, (Melanie Griffith) at whose house Humbert is boarding for the summer, some twenty plus years later in 1945, before planning to take a position at a nearby college, teaching French Literature to American schoolchildren.
The very second he lays eyes on Dolores/Lolita/Lo, he is instantly captivated, knowing at once that he has found the girl he has been looking for since he lost his perfect soul mate more than two decades previously. Lying there in the grass, blissfully unaware of his immediate fascination with her, Dolores is apparently oblivious to the power she holds over him, but that innocence is not all it seems to be. Furthermore, her playfulness with each passing day becomes less innocent and noticeably more implied.
It is clear if only from the above, that the script is as engrossing as it is verbose and literally glamorous, as Stephen Schiff stays unerringly close to Nabakov’s original work. It is also clear that despite Humbert’s apparent deviancy and his alleged appetite for girls of a certain age, it is not without consideration on his part. He knows that what he wants is wrong, but he is both weak and blissfully happy when he is around her. Her verve is infectious and impossible to ignore. Swain has immense fun with Lo in this respect and she encapsulates the character of Lolita completely. So completely, in fact, that you would do well to find another performance from her in her subsequent career that even wisened old movie buffs would appreciate more.
As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear that this happiness cannot possibly last. The death of her mother Charlotte. When Dolores is away at camp with girls her own age, Charlotte expresses her love for Humbert and suggests that either he leaves or they get married. Humbert has no intention of leaving, as this would mean he had no access or reason to be around Lolita. So he marries her mother, but this doesn’t last either. When Charlotte gains access to his locked personal desk drawer and finds what he really thinks of her, in black and white on the pages of his notebooks, she throws herself in front of a passing car, but not before telling her new husband, in her own way, that she knows exactly what is going on between him and his new step-daughter.
Lo is not without other admirers also. When Humbert and Lo go on a whistle stop tour of the less solubrious hotels of the United States after the death of her mother, they come into contact with writer Clare Quilty (Frank Langella) who has desires of his own regarding Lo, and pursues them across the country, albeit quite under the radar initially.
Living out of the back seat of a car, and in different bedrooms each night, Lo quickly tires of her new life with Humbert, bored and dismissive as only sulky teenagers are able to be. Her head is turned by Quilty and Humbert, who is more in love with her than ever, is helpless to stop her wandering, roving eye for new experiences. He wants to protect her like a father would a daughter, yet take her like a lover. These two opposing emotions slowly tear Humbert apart, leaving Lo to look on, confused and concerned.When they do finally settle, Lo goes to school and her independence grows and it is at this point that we really begin to see innocence depart. She begins to negotiate with Humbert over her sexual favours, usually for money and he, at what must be his weakest point, relents. He is asked to meet the Headmistress of the school, almost certain that their unsavoury arrangement has been uncovered in one of the most darkly comic scenes in the film, but instead she suggests that he take Dolores in hand and educate her in the subject of sexual reproduction. Naturally, Humber nearly chokes on the cake he is eating at the very thought of what the Headmistress is asking him to do.
After an argument, Dolores leaves and it is not until that night that they meet again when she states she wants to leave the school he has picked for her and carry on travelling, adventuring out of the back of their car, as they had been doing before they settled and it is at this point that Humbert begins to suspect that they are being followed. He knows not by whom, but we can have an educated guess. And we would be right.
After a bout of fever and a night in the hospital, the inevitable happens. Lo disappears, taken it seems, by a man unknown to Humbert and he is literally beside himself, yet we still don’t understand whether this feeling is of responsibility or of desire. Perhaps it is both. Perhaps he doesn’t even know himself. But at this point, he thinks of nothing else, but the pursuit of his lost charge. He refuses to let her go while he has a choice in the matter, not like the decision that disease and fate had made for him at fourteen-years-old. He travels to every motel and hotel he can think of staying in or even passing by, checking the hotel records, to see if they have been there.
“I searched all our old haunts and for several months the trail remained warm. The thief, the kidnapper, whatever you want to call him, he was clever. He would disguise his name, but I could always tell his handwriting.”
And then three years later, when Humbert has returned to teaching and has long since become used to the idea that he will never, ever find Dolores again, he receives a letter…
Adrian Lyne’s version of Lolita is truer to the original text than Stanley Kubrick’s earlier sixties version, with Stephen Schiff being preferred, even as a first time screenwriter, to treatments that had already been provided by the likes of David Mamet and Harold Pinter. Schiff had remarked at the time how Kubrick’s version of the story should really have been called ‘Quilty’, as it featured the character so much more than it does here in his final script, and the intermittent presence of Langella’s character here, including the more explosive final scenes seems more suitable. Quilty the shadowy tormentor to Humbert’s already wracked guilt seems more appropriate here than the sordid intentions of a child molester.
Both Irons and Swain are outstanding in their roles, completely believable and utterly convincing. Swain has the natural, breezy and innocent charms of a beautiful ingenue on the road to self-discovery, a fiery muse to everything Humbert holds dear. Irons is superb as the extricated and torn duality of being, from lover to protector, never one and the same thing, but guilty of nothing more, it seems, than becoming besotted with a pretty young thing that he falls completely for. By the end of the picture, we can see that whilst Humbert may be helplessly pursuing something even he knows is wrong, he cannot help it. He is searching for closure of the death of his childhood sweetheart or to embrace that feeling once more, for as long as he can. He is fixated on this person, which suggests that even as she matures and his feeling become even stronger for her, that it is not the perceived and accused disease of the mind he suffers from, but nothing more complicated than true love.
“I looked and looked at her and I knew, as clearly as I knew I would die, that I loved her more than anything I could ever see or imagine on earth. She was only the dead leaf echo of the nymphette from long ago, but I loved her, this Lolita, pale and polluted, big with another man’s child. She could fade and wither, I didn’t care. I would still go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of her face.”