Film: Playing with the devil within
As Humbert Humbert, Jeremy Irons once again portrays a 'damaged' person. Nick Hasted meets an actor used to playing misfits
Nick Hasted has been a film journalist since 1986. He writes about film, music, books and comics for The Independent, Sight & Sound, Uncut and Little White Lies. He has published two books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), and You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), both from Omnibus Press.
Friday 08 May 1998
Its star, Jeremy Irons, has been the most damned tabloid target. You could almost say he had it coming. In films from The French Lieutenant's Woman to Dead Ringers, and in parts from Claus von Bulow to the tortured adulterer in Damage, he's made a career from limping reserve. Anthony Hopkins might be the king of coolness. But Irons has found weaker, nastier aspects of the English disease.
In person, too, he's provoked discomfort. Some journalists have found him distant and rude. Co-workers have commented on his aloof habits. His struggle with Catholicism and God, his sometimes simplistic clutching for belief, has made a sceptical media sniff as if he's mad. The jump to condemn him as evil for comments on teenage sexuality has been swift.
Today, he's on his best behaviour. He knows how hard he'll have to work to let Lolita be seen. He always claims to feel a fraction of his 49 years, and the conviction is visible in his face, younger than on screen. He seems full of certainties, even platitudes. But listen carefully, and his voice struggles with doubt. Only his defence for Lolita is cast in stone.
"I think we all contain within us the murderer, the rapist, the paedophile," Irons states. "I don't think that a man who feels attracted to a 14-year- old has anything inherently wrong with him. I think it's just an animal feeling. In our society, he's not allowed to act on it. I think that is absolutely right. But I think we have to understand ourselves, we have to recognise what we're made up of. My character Humbert Humbert is a monster, because he's harming a child. But he's also quite likable. He's not someone who you can say, 'that is the sort of person I could never be'."
Lolita is never simple. It's $45 million budget has already been abandoned to cable TV in America. Irons identifies the film's seductiveness as the element which made it unreleasable. Its power comes from moments when you want the love between the man and the girl to succeed, when their happiness seems touchable. "Isn't that the case with morality?" Irons asks. "There has to be a time when the audience thinks, 'God, this is great!' It has to be sexy, they have to see what's attractive to Humbert, what's attractive to Lolita, before the shit hits the fan. The film taints you, it doesn't let you be distant. Isn't that the case whenever you sin? I've always believed that sin is about the fact that retribution, hell, will happen. If you can cope with that, then sin. But no-one gets away with it."
It's the sort of moralistic comment that has caused Irons problems in the past. But his films have a complexity which belies it. In Lolita, and Damage and Dead Ringers, he plays characters cancerous with obsession. They're eaten away by what they can't express. Even at their most alive, their happiness is enfeebled, their smiles weak. Our first sight of Humbert Humbert, swaying hopelessly in his car, is symptomatic of the wounded creatures which Irons has made his own.
"It's a contradiction that I love," he agrees. "I'm interested in human frailty. I'm not really interested in machismo. I'm interested in what we struggle to cope with inside ourselves, however good our outside show is. I'm interested in characters who fool themselves. It's that contrast, the abrasion that creates that interests me."
Irons shows contradiction in his acting in a way that's uniquely explicit, almost eerie. His face changes from scene to scene. In Damage, there are scenes where he's thin-lipped, cadaverous. At other times, he's full of allure, confident and groomed.
"I have a changeable face," he admits. "And I've never worried about that. I think as human beings we're very unpredictable, and in my work I've tried to embrace that. I know that I'm very different people in different situations, and so I let scenes go where they will. The performance is almost a collage. I've never tried to be consistent. And I never say, 'But he wouldn't do that.' Because I know that he could."
Irons' key roles deal with the repression which is endemic in England, as part of the contortions he seeks. But unlike Anthony Hopkins, the parts Irons favours shove their emotions to the surface. It suggests that some state of hedonistic bliss would be his ideal, a transcendence of his own, obvious Englishness. "I don't believe in hedonistic happiness," he disagrees. "In my own nature, I have a limited ability for it. I can't imagine happiness that's never-ending. I just can't imagine how it could exist."
But his films can and do, again and again. Whether it's a sexual obsession so great in Damage that it can make a son's death irrelevant, or Humbert's blissful reawakening in Lolita's arms, there are moments of ecstasy that seem equal to their cost. Doesn't he think such brief moments of brightness can be worth it?
"That's a very dangerous thought," he winces. "I don't think anything is worth harming someone. I think the character in Damage would say it was worth it. As for me, no. And in general, I think it's not. You cannot justify it. It's a mad route to take. I think the best we can hope for are bursts of happiness. To give up everything for that, when you know you will never get another burst." He sighs, torn. "Especially if somebody's damaged. But that's why there are stories about it," he decides. "So we can live those moments vicariously."
But when he plays those states of obsession and transcendence, what does he draw on? They're the roles where he's strongest, the direction he's leant in the most. Surely they're expressing some part of himself?
"I think that extremity in my work's a sort of safety valve," he says carefully. "Because I'm a very middle-class Englishman, privately educated, well-behaved, charming. And yet I'm an artist. My values are mixed. I value my family enormously, the strength and the shape that gives to my life. And yet I yearn for madness. I know that if I fill my life with madness, what I value will fall apart. And so I think I'm drawn to these characters as a sort of catharsis. I stretch myself in them. I would prefer that than to live a wild life, to live in the mayhem of that. It's playing them that allows me to be normal. It allows me the greatest happiness."
Swedish stars ask fans for £195 pledges on crowd-funding website
voicesJust when you thought you could find a man, get married, and have a baby by the age of 35... it turns out you’re too late, says Grace Dent
sportNapoli 2 Arsenal 0: Gunners must now face either Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid or Barcelona in knock-out stages
musicAs Mariah Carey and Noddy Holder rake in the royalties from their classics, why there hasn't been a decent festive hit for 20 years?
theatreAuthor Daniel Rosenthal recalls the mishaps that almost brought the curtain down on the likes of John Gielgud and Diana Rigg
filmFilm producers sue Warner Bros for $75m over Hobbit films
lifeAs the Royal Mail plans to phase out deliveries on two wheels, it's no wonder posties are in a spin
musicThe 21-year-old beat Ella Eyre and Chlöe Howl to win the honour
lifeFull of the joys and want to help your fellow man? December isn't the time to do it
techLuke Blackall reports on precision engineered prams and babygros that monitor your child 24-7
Life & Style blogs
YouTube: Top trending videos of 2013 - including Tom Daley and Peppa Pig
Chinese scientists 'increasingly confident' about invisibility cloak after making a cat disappear
GTA 5 update: Content Creator released, online heists and story mode updates coming soon
The rise of goo-goo gadgets: Hey baby, nice wheels!
Pirate Bay sets sail for Ascension Island after SX domain name seized by authorities
- 1 Nelson Mandela memorial: ‘Bogus’ interpreter made mockery of Barack Obama’s tribute
- 2 It’s shameful that our universities have accepted gender segregation under pressure from the most oppressive religious fanatics
- 3 John McAfee's $100 'anti-NSA' device: 'this is coming and cannot be stopped'
- 4 Is Facebook making us forget? Study shows that taking pictures ruin memories
- 5 Australia incest case: Filthy and severely deformed children found in remote farming community after generations of inbreeding
£77099.84 - £96375.26 per annum + Bonus + Benefits : Harrington Starr: My clie...
£45000 - £60000 per annum + Bonus and Package: Harrington Starr: Trading appli...
£35000 - £38000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Developer (Win...
£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: Senior QA Engineer Tes...