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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Lolita

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain
Director: Adrian Lyne
Rated: R
RunTime: 137 Minutes
Release Date: September 1998
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Melanie Griffith, Frank Langella, Suzanne Shepherd, Marta Balletbo-Coll

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Review by Greg King
3 stars out of 4

Adrian Lyne's previous films (9 And 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, etc) have dealt with the nature of sexual attraction and obsession, and his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial 1958 novel Lolita further explores these themes. However, free of the strict moral and censorship code that shaped Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version, Lyne is able to explore the novel in far more detail. Where Kubrick largely alluded to the nature of the relationship between Humbert and his precocious 12 year old step daughter, Lyne is able to explore it in franker terms.

However, Lyne's intelligent and sensitive handling of the provocative material and his sense of restraint is unexpected. Lolita is nowhere near as sexually explicit or torrid as its detractors would have us believe, but is rather a more poignant and evocative tale of a tragically doomed and illicit love affair. Many writers, including James Drearden, Harold Pinter, and even David Mamet, have attempted to write a more contemporary flavoured adaptation of Lolita, but Lyne found the perfect collaborator in former Vanity Fair film critic Stephen Schiff, whose lyrical and melancholy script seems to capture much of the book's flavour.

The two central performances are powerful and complex and enhance the movie. Jeremy Irons brings his usual pained and haunted expression to the character of Humbert Humbert, the refined English professor who comes to New England to take up a teaching assignment in 1947. Humbert is still marked by the loss of an adolescent love that has haunted him for the past quarter of a century. He is initially reluctant to take up lodging with the man hungry widow Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith), until he spies her beautiful young daughter Dolores (newcomer Dominique Swain).

Despite her childish demeanour, Dolores arouses long forgotten feelings in Humbert. He eventually marries Charlotte, just so he can be close to Dolores, and successfully manages to avoid most of his husbandly duties. For a long time Charlotte misreads the attraction between Humbert and her daughter. Following the death of Charlotte, Humbert and Dolores set out on a journey across an America slowly recovering from the war and emerging with a recognition of its own identity and culture.

Irons brings sophistication and urbane charm to the role, and makes Humbert something of a sympathetic figure. He convincingly conveys Humbert's ever increasing sense of guilt and remorse. His voice over narration provides insight into his obsession, and also adds some touches of droll humour. Lyne uses some neat cinematic tricks to illustrate Humbert's disquieting inner nightmares as he begins to lose control of the relationship. Irons gives a confident and convincing performance in this tricky role, whereas James Mason always seemed uncomfortable.

In a remarkably assured debut performance, Swain (who went on to play Nicolas Cage's daughter in the action thriller Face/Off) is a wonderfully seductive and manipulative nymphet. Swain beautifully mixes childlike innocence with an earthy quality and a smouldering sexuality that sears across the screen.

Frank Langella (from Dave, etc) is truly creepy as the enigmatic and predatory Quilty. In the early stages, he is mainly seen in shadows and gloomy lighting, which gives him a sinister, mysterious and somehow menacing quality.

Lyne's adaptation of Lolita finally reaches our screens, following a year of protracted debate over whether it is pornography or art, and whether it should be banned. Not since Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ has a film had so much free pre-publicity, which certainly won't harm it at the box office. Far from glorifying paedophilia, as most of the film's detractors have claimed, Lolita ends badly and tragically for all concerned. In fact, the most disturbing scene is the Taxi Driver-like violence at the end when Humbert confronts the monstrously amoral Quilty in his own mansion.

The film is visually rich, and has a beautiful, glossy, almost romantic surface that seduces the audience, despite its dubious subject matter. Howard Atherton's exquisite cinematography brings to life the rich American landscapes through which Humbert and Lolita travel on their odyssey. Ennio Morricone's lush score further enriches the movie.

Copyright 2000 Greg King

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