Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons
Lolita (1997) is not a terrible film. It does, however, suffer from a fundamentally compromising tone problem, that of an oppressive respectability that suffocates many of Jeremy Irons’ projects. With a preference for literary and other high brow adaptations, it’s remarkable Irons was never tapped for a Merchant Ivory project, and many of his films aim for that level of monied respectability. But is the wrong tone for this film, as it fails to consistently capture how the protagonist Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator, a central crux to the comical and critical view of Humbert.
Lolita is about the obsessions of a pedophile. The novel (which I have not read, nor have I seen Kubrick’s version) is full of high literary humour, whereas this adaptation is a dour drama, dampening what humour it does stage with a treacly score by Ennio Morricone and a dead serious tone. Scenes such as Humbert Humbert (Irons) slipping and sliding in a hospital or a naked Clare Quilty (Frank Langella) being chased throughout his manor by Humbert have humour embedded within them, but Morricone’s score is used to create drama and suspense instead of propelling the humour. Such drama is compelling throughout the film, but in the end the audience must question why this film makes us feel for Humbert Humbert. Instead of a consistent tone of mockery that reveals Humbert as an unreliable narrator, the film portrays scenes in lush detail, yet fails to capture the derisive humour that surrounds our pathetic protagonist. There are some exceptions. Some scenes make the unreliable narrator more obvious, such as Humbert’s idyllic, idealistic gaze as he looks at Dolores for the last time as he wants to remember her, not as a pregnant woman, but the 12-year-old he loved. Another captures his paranoia, stretching and warping the film in a distinctly 90s fashion to illustrate his obsession. Finally, the narration by Irons illustrates Humbert’s perverse mindset, such as Humbert casually clearing his conscious when he finds out Dolores (Dominique Swain) was sexually active at summer camp. He wasn’t even her “first lover”, Humber narrates coolly, in an attempt to erase culpability for his pedophilic desires.
However, Humbert’s role as an unreliable narrator is inconsistent. Morricone’s score is probably meant to imply the artificiality of Humbert’s view – that he sees Dolores through an idealized gaze, but it is never employed with the irony it needs to present such a worldview. Instead, it functions as prestige lining, embroidering the carefully framed tableaux instead of undercutting them to reveal Humbert’s fabrications. Thus, the film often walks the dangerous line of glorifying what it should be condemning. While the film is entertaining in terms of drama, its function as a prestige project drama undermines the tonal consistency required for such a project.
This isn’t to say the film never critiques the sexualization of young girls. As Mark Nicholls (2012) writes, “it is clear to anyone who opens a magazine or watches any form of screen entertainment that, as a culture, we remain ambivalent as best as to what we think about the sexualization of teenage girls” (189). Dolores continuously looks at various magazines and comics as she adorns her walls with idealized images of women. This begs the question of how the media glamourizes and sexualizes young girls. As Humbert writes in the novel, Dolores’ profession was “none, or ‘starlet'”, illustrating how Dolores’ expectations are warped. But so to are Humbert’s, and the film would be much more successful if it made Humbert’s unreliability as a narrator consistently clear.
Irons, of course, is perfect to play the role of Humbert Humbert. The gazing, the lusting, the creepiness, the narration, it’s all a perfect fit for Irons, who, as Nicholls describes, often plays “the prince of perversion” (2). Irons is practically born for the role, balancing wistful gazes with authentic nervousness, and paranoia with power. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, creating compelling chemistry between characters that will twist you along throughout the drama. It’s only a shame that such drama lost some of its teeth in adaptation. In the end, the film’s prestige portrait of Humbert is more that what he deserves.
Nicholls, Mark. Lost Objects of Desire: The Performances of Jeremy Irons. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.