All morals and no trousers

the big picture


Adrian Lyne (18)

Imagining a Stanley Kubrick remake of Flashdance is the sort of thing that can cheer you up on a glum day, but the prospect of Adrian Lyne returning the favour isn't quite as appetising. So it would seem at first to be something of a relief that for their Lolita, Lyne and his screenwriter Stephen Schiff have turned not to Kubrick's 1961 version but to the source - to what Sting, struggling to find a rhyme for "cough", famously referred to in a song lyric as "that book by Nabokov".

This week is either a conveniently pertinent or an unfeasibly bad time for the movie to be released, assuming of course that there could ever be an appropriate moment at which to express sympathy for paedophiles. Although Lolita was completed two years ago, its release has been repeatedly delayed, though the picture is underpinned by various pre-emptive compromises and safety measures which only just stop short of a "don't try this at home" sign flashed up before the credits.

You would be hard-pressed to find a movie which wears its morality so boastfully. Lyne's film is unimpeachable in the sense that it's about a paedophile who is destroyed by his sexual deviancy, realises the error of his ways, murders a man whose identical desires manifest themselves in a more predatory fashion, and then experiences genuine remorse for having prematurely ended a girl's childhood. Great. So you can watch it with your teenage daughter. But even she could tell you that impeccable moral credentials aren't the measure of a masterpiece.

And if she hasn't got anything better to do, she could probably also point out that a film adaptation of a novel can demonstrate absolute fidelity in the tiniest detail while still betraying the spirit of the original text.

The casting of Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert, who marries his landlady Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith) in order to be close to her daughter Lolita (Dominique Swain), is a stroke of genius, and one which Lyne bizarrely fails to capitalise on. One of Irons' most magical gifts is that he can elicit the viewer's trust regardless of a role's moral fibre; that was what made him so dangerously poignant in Dead Ringers and Reversal of Fortune.

This talent is actively discouraged by Lyne, who seems interested only in the primary stages of Irons' technique - with what the actor can do to make Humbert likeable, rather than how far he can then stretch and distort the character before the audience recoils. Irons displays a zesty, boyish grin that we haven't seen before, but he has not been directed to evoke what Nabokov called the "cesspoolful of rotting monsters" lurking behind that smile.

Anyone who complains that Lolita isn't explicit or daring enough risks returning home to find a bonfire in their wheelie bin courtesy of the friendly neighbourhood lynch mob. But the fact remains that Lyne is afraid to subject his audience to even the mildest discomfort. This is not so much a moral concern as a commercial one - the same fear that compels him to smother Irons' more unsavoury aspects. He translates Humbert's desires into a transparent visual language which the most casual viewer will have no trouble decoding, and makes unfamiliar and ambiguous passions tediously innocuous.

Much of the movie's imagery has the neutered, sexless gloss that was the speciality of the Athena poster company. When we first glimpse Lolita, she is lying in the garden under the spray of a lawn sprinkler which has apparently been modified so that the water glues the clothes to her body but fails to make the magazine that she's leafing through soggy. The wet t-shirt may be an overtly sexual image, but it's one which has lost its power to threaten or entice, much like the banana that Lolita fellates. And it was never very likely that the man who immortalised the sexual importance of the household refrigerator in 91/2 Weeks would resist exploiting the erotic possibilities offered by the preparation of an ice cream float - the chunk of buttery vanilla bobbing in the chocolate murk; the bellybutton-hole that's left behind after a shiny cherry has vanished into the froth. The most touching moment comes when Lyne exchanges clutter for minimalism, switching from the corner of a hotel room crammed with lamps and mirrors to a serene close-up of Humbert peeling Lolita's sock from her foot.

Lyne is a director renowned for stylistic excess, and for the first time in his career this turns out to be an asset, although the parts of Lolita where his intentions overlap with those of Nabokov feel more like happy accidents than blasts of intuition. I don't believe Lyne has ever composed an interior shot without having a blinding haze streaming in through the shuttered windows, as though the house was surrounded by stadium floodlights. For once, this fits, creating a hermetic gloom in which Humbert and Lolita can fester, although the ubiquitous ventilation devices only confirm my theory that Lyne gets paid per ceiling fan.

He and Schiff are loyal to some of Nabokov's most striking images, like the blood-bubble swelling on the lips of Humbert's rival, Quilty (Frank Langella), which echoes Lolita's ever-present bubblegum. And they conjure some of their own to cement the connection between sex and death, such as the blood smeared over Humbert's face like warpaint, recalling Lolita's violently smudged lipstick. But while Humbert's twisted viewpoint provides Lyne with an enclosure within which his intoxicating style can at last be justified, he makes two fatal departures from the protagonist's perspective: permitting Lolita a private dance on a vibrating bed which our narrator could not have witnessed, and later cutting between the attack on Quilty and the police's pursuit of Humbert, thus sacrificing coherence for suspense.

Even the flashes of synchronicity between text and film, fail to convince that Lyne has made any emotional connection with his material. To him, the affair between Humbert and Lolita is just a proposal more indecent than pimping your wife to Robert Redford; an attraction slightly more fatal than the one between Michael Douglas and Glenn Close.

Where is the evidence that he understands Nabokov any more than Sting does?

Lolita opens today.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

    £30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

    Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

    £34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

    Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

    Developer - WinForms, C#

    £280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform