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
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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."