LOLITA (1997)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith, Frank Langella, Dominique Swain
Director:  Adrian Lyne
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Trimark
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Director’s Commentary, Cast & Crew Bios, Casting Sessions
Length:  137 Minutes
Release Date:  October 12, 1999

Film ****

I feel like I should tread carefully, and begin by saying just because I think Lolita merits the highest rating, it does not mean I’m giving the movie a flat out recommendation.  I would urge the curious to read the remainder of this review before deciding to pick up this disc.

Those who aren’t familiar with the classic novel by Vladimir Nabokov, or are only familiar with the 1962 film by Stanley Kubrick, may not be prepared for what this film has to offer, which is a largely faithful adaptation of a controversial book detailing the affair between an older man and a fourteen year old girl.  It is a distasteful subject, to be sure, and this film doesn’t try to pretend it’s anything but that…however, the point of the story is not so much about an ill-advised (and certainly illegal) erotic encounter, but about the dark side of human nature that often becomes exposed through weakness.  It is the story of the downward spiral and eventual destruction of a man who should have known better, and did know better, but gave in to his seediest desires and eventually paid a heavy price for it.

I tried to watch this film as an independent entity, without mentally referring to the Kubrick classic, which is a movie I practically know by heart.  I wasn’t surprised to find I was unable to refrain from comparison, but I was surprised that I came to the conclusion that this modern version, directed by Adrian Lyne, was the better film. 

Kubrick, unfortunately, was rather limited in how he could approach the controversial novel back in the early 60’s, and had to find ways to lessen the emphasis on the subject matter.  He used several techniques to do this:  one, he purposely kept all indications as vague as possible that Lolita and Humbert were sexually involved.  Two, he spent much more time in the early part of the book, developing the odd relationship between Humbert and Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, thus taking some time away from the portion of the story that involve Humbert and Lolita alone.  Three, he modernized the story by making it take place in the 60’s rather than the 40’s, and thus was able to introduce a lot of the “swinger” culture mentality to the story, which helped make sexual implications a little more open and a bit funnier.  And finally, by using the great Peter Sellers, he made the role of Quilty more akin to Sellers’ style of comedy, and kept him a figure that appeared much more harmless than he was intended to be.

In Adrian Lyne’s film, the subject matter is not winked at nor glossed over.  It is explored in all its depravity, and as such, the issues come more fluidly to life, as was intended in the original novel.  The notion that such misguided deeds can only lead to ruin for those involved is an important moral.  And in this version, Lyne doesn’t shy away from revealing the damage the child suffers in such a situation.  There is kind of a surreal atmosphere in the relationship between Humbert (Irons) and Lolita (Swain) that evolves not only from the constant pressure of Humbert knowing what he is doing is both destructive and illegal, but mixed in is the aspect of him being her legal guardian.  Being paternal and being a lover is a combination that will never blend well, and never settle.  And the darkness of the deeds linger like shadows over their lives.  For example, after their first real night together, Humbert describes sitting next to Lolita the following morning as “sitting next to the ghost of someone I had just murdered”.  He knows he has placed both of their lives on a path they won’t be able to walk away from.

But while Humbert’s problem is one of weakness, and his conscience shows through despite the behavior he grows increasingly unable to control, the character of Quilty (Langella) is one of the darkest villains in literature.  He pursues Lolita with no qualms of guilt, and with no love, paternal or otherwise…nothing but a lustful appetite for young girls that he’s willing to go to rather incredible links to satisfy.

And Lolita’s character is not lost in the mix here.  She is a child at just the right age where it is natural for her to explore and begin to be curious about her own sexuality.  She ends up with quite a bit of power over Humbert, which is sometimes a playful aspect, but given her youth, it’s clear she doesn’t fully understand it, or the implications.  As she grows more and more manipulative, we see that it’s more of a cry for help than anything else.  She’s a kid, not a seductress, so the fact that Humbert becomes so trapped by her becomes all the more disturbing and tragic.

This film is disturbing, make no mistake.  It explores a taboo subject matter and the darkest sides of human nature simultaneously, neither of which are particularly comforting places to be.  But it does so with a sense of honesty.  The purpose of the exploration is not to revel in the concept of an older man and an underage girl having a sexual affair, but rather to convey the destructiveness of such an ignoble pairing.  It is a film that achieves an almost sadly surreal atmosphere, and we can’t help but feel sorry for both characters as their destiny spirals more and more out of their control.

Video ***

Though not anamorphic, Trimark does a mostly nice job with their transfer.  The only real complaint I had was that certain brightly lit outdoor sequences looked a little bit softer, but the darker scenes and indoor settings came across nicely, with sharp images and good coloring.  There was very little evidence of grain throughout. 

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack has a few nice dynamic moments, when certain scenes are emphasized by sounds such as wind and rain, or in one case, a rather exaggerated bug zapper.  The rear channels come into play during these moments for added effect and punch.  The subwoofer gets some low distant rumblings of foreshadowing from time to time.

Features ***

A trailer, a commentary by Lyne, cast and crew info, and selected screen tests that paired Irons with Swain.


Lolita is not for everybody, and that’s fine.  I would urge anyone who feels a sense of disdain from what I have written to go ahead and avoid this disc.  I can’t even say this is a movie for the adventurous moviegoer.  More than anything, I think this is a film that requires a certain amount of faith going into it.  Though the subject matter is indeed repulsive, if you can allow Adrian Lyne to explore it in the way he has chosen, and follow the paths these characters find themselves sliding down, you can find this movie a powerful, tragic, and in a strange way, beautiful examination of the dark side of human nature.