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

Lolita pulls the rug out from under you. It makes your certainties squirm. It puts you in the head of an emotionally stunted man in his forties, renewed by the sight of a 14-year-old girl. It reminds you that teenagers are sexual, and tempting, and long for love, too. It entraps you in the swirling self-justifications of a man swept up in his obsession, even as its dreadful consequences mount. Made by Adrian Lyne, the director of 9 1/2 Weeks, it's a film made with almost too much care. But in a climate where paedophiles are glimpsed like vampires on the edge of every frenzied British town, you could be trampled in the rush to judge it.

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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
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
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
News
Justin Bieber performing in Paris earlier this year
people
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil in Jamie Lloyd's Richard III
theatreReview: The monarch's malign magnetism and diabolic effrontery aren’t felt
Arts and Entertainment
'Molecular Man +1+1+1' by Jonathan Borofsky at Yorkshire Sculpture park
tv
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips
video
Arts and Entertainment
In his own words: Oscar Wilde in 1882
theatreNew play by the Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials - and what they reveal about the man
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m
filmWith US films earning record-breaking amounts at the Chinese box office, Hollywood is more than happy to take its lead from its new-found Asian audience
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Project Support Assistant - Hampshire - up to 40K

    £25000 - £40000 per annum + 23 days holiday Pension Scheme: Deerfoot IT Resour...

    Foundation / Year 1 Teacher - Long Term - Salford

    £90 - £130 per day + competitive rates, pension scheme: Randstad Education Man...

    .Net Developer -London - up to 55K

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits : Deerfoot IT Resources Limited...

    Long Term Primary Teacher - Oldham - Start September 2014

    £100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Manchester Primary: Key Stage 1 Teache...

    Day In a Page

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil