Lolita (1997) starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith, Frank Langella, Suzanne Shepherd, Keith Reddin directed by Adrian Lyne Movie Review

Lolita (1997)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain in Lolita

Hot Irons Heats Up Lolita

The subject of paedophilia is not in the least bit pleasant and sitting down to watch Adrian Lyne's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's notorious novel "Lolita" about the sexual affair between a step father and step daughter filled me with apprehension. But I have to say that "Lolita" is an impressive movie, a mature movie which is not concerned by the seedy, explicit nature of this plainly wrong relationship but focuses on the characters. Lyne shows great restraint whilst dealing with such a powerful subject and explores the characters, the weak minded Humbert and the flirtatious Delores as they embark on this dark journey. And it is the direction of Lyne and the performances of Jeremy Irons as well as Dominique Swain which makes "Lolita" impress so much.

With a few months to go before taking up a job as a lecturer, British professor Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) rents a room at Charlotte Haze's (Melanie Griffith - Working Girl) house. He immediately becomes fascinated by her 14 year old daughter Delores (Dominique Swain) who he calls Lolita, and starts to have romantic feelings towards her who in turn seems to be aware of this and flirts with him at every opportunity. In order to remain close to her Humbert marries Charlotte although in reality despises her loudness and vulgarity and before long the flirtations turn into a full blow physical relationship as Humbert and Lolita travel together from motel to motel, sharing a room. Whilst feeling guilt over their illicit relationship Humbert is also paranoid that they are being followed and jealous when Lolita starts to tire of him, falling prey to her constant manipulations as he needs her affection.

Melanie Griffith as Charlotte Haze in Lolita

So the first thing which has to be said is that for a director who has made such risque fare as "Nine and a Half Weeks", "Fatal Attraction" and "Unfaithful" what we watch in "Lolita" is very restrained. Lyne never explores the sexual side of the movie in a shocking visual manner, in fact whilst sex is for the most insinuated there are very few scenes which you would ever class as shocking or titillating. It means that "Lolita" is a very grown up movie with Lyne being very respectful of a subject which is unpleasant. The fact that occasionally Lyne allows for a touch of humour to creep in isn't him being disrespectful but making a movie which could have been morose much easier to watch.

Because of this restraint and not focussing on the sexual nature of the storyline "Lolita" is very much an examination of character most notably that of the adult Humbert Humbert. It is powerful stuff and there are no excuses thrown up for why Humbert embarks on such a wrong relationship, in fact we watch him trying to fight his urges yet is so weak willed that he succumbs. But we are given reasoning, the tragic relationship as a 14 year old which left him broken when the beautiful young girl he was in love with died suddenly. It means that Humbert becomes real and whilst we don't ever sympathise with him we accept that his formative years are a big part of why he ends up embarking on this wrong sexual relationship. And at the same time we are made aware, however wrong this is, that he truly does love Delores, unaware of what damage the relationship is really doing to not just her but also himself.

Acting such a difficult character you have to praise Jeremy Irons for getting it spot on. Irons makes Humbert a very real person and never veers towards any cliche's when dealing with such a troublesome character. When we watch Humbert staring at Delores before the affair starts you really understand that here is a man who is struggling to control his feeling towards a minor. And when he succumbs to his feelings Irons makes him a pathetic creature, still human but someone who is week minded and needy. That neediness comes through even more as the storyline progresses and their relationship starts to deteriorate.

But "Lolita" is not all about the weak minded Humbert it is also about Delores a manipulative young girl who comes across as a willing participant in this illegal relationship. The fact that Delores flirts with Humbert, flashing leg and a smile as she knows it drives him crazy makes her a manipulative creature. But whilst one minute Delores is manipulating Humbert the next minute she is just a child, a young girl who listens to music and chews bubble gum. It is this almost split personality and innocent youth mixed with a manipulative vixen which makes her so fascinating and has an almost ambiguity about it as to whether she is purposefully manipulative or innocently knowing no better.

And like Jeremy Irons you have to applaud Dominique Swain for such a strong performances as Delores. Swain was just 15 when "Lolita" was made yet she gives such a believable performance switching character from the innocent school girl to the manipulative vixen with such ease. And because of this is why we lay blame on Humbert for being so pathetic for succumbing to Delores's flirtations she is equally to blame as a seemingly willing party. The pair of Irons and Swain work so well together and thanks to some clever editing the use of a body double in the few more explicit scenes goes unnoticed.

Irons and Swain are not the only strong performances, Frank Langella is utterly creepy and disgusting as Clare Quilty whilst Melanie Griffith as Delores's mother gives a solid but maybe a little too over the top performance.

What this all boils down to is that "Lolita" is an impressive movie, impressive because it never approaches being seedy or cheapening such a powerful subject matter but approaches it in a very level headed adult manner. It is the fact it revolves around the exploration of character rather than the intricacies of this illicit sexual relationship which makes it so interesting. And between the restrained direction of Adrian Lyne and the believable performances of Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain it makes "Lolita" an eye opening, interesting movie without being heavy handed with the subject matter or becoming titillating in any manner.