Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Jeremy Irons is not a sexy man. He radiates a certain unease in that quarter, as if asked to gralloch a stag when wearing his best suit. A hint of primness follows him, like the remembered odour of drawing rooms, and his body language is constricted by instinctive formality.

Nabokov's protagonist, Humbert Humbert, has the intellect of a snake and the manipulative skills of a snake charmer. He can seduce with a suggestive phrase, put down with a barbed word. He is master of his own desire, until it devours him, becoming servant of a darker destiny. Irons is passive, letting fate rumble him. He should know why he's there and what he's doing. He should break the mould.

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Dominique Swain was a Malibu high school senior, with no acting experience, when chosen from 2500 hopefuls. She is as close to a revelation as Hollywood will allow. At times beautiful, at others half ordinary, she captures the mercurial nature of teenage sexuality perfectly.

Lolita is a flirt and an adventuress. She doesn't care and learns quickly how to get what she wants, although knowing what she wants changes by the minute. She's a funster, a tease, anything to alleviate the boredom of growing up. Sex is in the toy box with jawbreakers, dark glasses, ice cream sodas and teenybop discs. Just another distraction.

Adrian Lyne takes so much trouble with the look of the film that it resembles a TV commercial. The detail of post-war, Forties America diffuses dramatic content, as if the packaging is the play. Shock elements are softened by exquisite camerawork. The idea of a dirty old man corrupting a young girl's innocence is blown by the beauty of it. Lolita makes all the running. Humbert tags along, partly irritated, partly infatuated. She can take him or leave him which she does, depending on how she's feeling. He sits there in agony, waiting for her next suprise.

The story loses its grip once Hum and Lo leave home and head for the vast expanse of virgin America. The early stuff, with Lolita's mum (Melanie Griffith) playing baby games to entrap him, has a humour and a social content that can be cruel and sharp. A road movie is a road movie is a long time passing. The introduction of the mysterious Quilty (Frank Langella) as some kind of voyeuristic stalker adds a frisson of absurdity to proceedings, especially the way Lyne presents him, as a villain from the Hammer House of Horror.

This version is better than Kubrick's (1961) because sex happens, albeit off screen. Lolita is no lollipop princess. She's having a whale of a time. "I was a daisy fresh girl," she taunts Humbert. "Now look what you've done to me."

When he starts being parental and telling her off, she slaps his face, or goes away on her own for a while. Without Nabokov's prose the plot feels thin and foolish. Swain make you believe it because she's right there in the mouth of adventure, crying and laughing and being spontaneous.

Irons makes you believe none of it because he appears incapable of unbridled passion. If you don't think sexy, it doesn't cross over. Irons thinks nursery teas by the look of it, with Nanny being cross if he hasn't washed his hands.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Jeremy Irons takes on Nabokov's dirty old man out to corrupt a young girl.
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Director: Adrian Lyne

Writer: Stephen Schiff, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith, Dominique Swain, Frank Langella, Suzanne Shepherd, Keith Reddin, Erin J Dean, Joan Glover, Pat Pierre Perkins, Ed Grady

Year: 1997

Runtime: 137 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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