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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.