Lolita - rated - SIMMERING

Lolita is a beautiful looking film, with a finely-judged and sensitive performance by Jeremy Irons, who seems to be making a career of bridging the gap between sexual "depravity" and the film-going public.

I saw this film at a "preview" over the Easter weekend, because there's a good chance the film (now classified R in Australia) will be reclassified and withdrawn from the cinemas. Some politicians consider it condones pedophilia. They held a special screening for politicians in the week before Easter and only 8 people turned up - so much for the widespread concern this film is generating.

I had to line up for 20 minutes to get a ticket to this film at the preview, at a theatre on Sydney's sleepy old North Shore, so I have a feeling that keen cinemagoers are not happy to have politicians telling them what they can and can't see.

Adrian Lyne opens his film with a narration by Irons, explaining how, when his character Humbert, was a young teenager, he fell in love with a 14 year old girl, who later died. This was the background to Humbert's obsession with "nymphets." "The poison was in the wound," he says, "and it never healed." This man is deeply scarred.

Kubrick didn't give Humbert this excuse in his 1962 film of Lolita.. It was not as easy to sympathise with James Mason's Humbert for that, among other reasons. Perhaps it is this sympathy which disturbs the politicians who want to ban the 1997 Lolita.. But I doubt it. They just don't want to see films about pedophilia.

And so to the big issue: Does this film encourage pedophilia? Well, for one thing, it all ends badly, for everyone. For another thing, the film is extremely specific - these are unusual characters in particular and unlikely circumstances. And the film is long, languid, intellectual, and in parts - in the words of one of the politicians - boring. It is not in the least "titillating", although it is sexy. Dominique Swain plays a difficult role as both victim and predator, temptress and petulant child, to perfection. I understand the film took so long to make (financing difficulties) that she actually aged 2 years during filming. This must have made things very difficult all round, but none of this shows.

However the pedophilia question is not a question to be dismissed lightly. There is more to consider than the fact that they all come to a bad end. After all, for around 2 hours the film explores the precocious sexuality of a young girl. She is presented, at times, very erotically. She is a coquette (not to say a nymphet - Adrian Lyne doesn't pursue this angle of the novel). Humbert is not her first lover. Much of the time, she is the pursuer, not the pursued.

It seems to me that we must squarely face the all issues that this film raises - including that young girls come to sexual maturity at different times, and that a child can be sexually active and still be a child, in need of protection. As with so many of the social issues we grapple with today, there is no line that can be drawn to indicate right from wrong. Fiction, in the form of films and books, can allow us to consider these issues and experience the emotions involved vicariously, without having to experience them ourselves.

This is absolutely the case with Adrian Lyne's Lolita , in which Humbert is shown as a man, not a monster. We can see why he is attracted to Lolita, and while we (should) know it is wrong, we can understand why Humbert acts as he does, and we may even imagine ourselves in his shoes. But if we do so, we must take the whole journey with him, see how his image of Lolita conflicts with her reality, and know that it ends in ruin.

Returning to the technical aspects of the film itself, I'd like to single out its costume design for praise - costume design plays a crucial role in rounding out Lolita's character, and it works brilliantly. The fashions for young girls in the 40s and 50s will win somebody a PhD one of these days. Also Frank Langella as Quilty deserves a mention. He had always struck me as an actor who was too good-looking. He had an overripe sweetness which means that in his later years he is perfect casting as the malevolent Quilty. Melanie Griffith is not as successful as Charlotte Haze. She does have a certain quality, but her performance cannot even approach that of Shelley Winters in Kubrick's version. Variety described Winters' performance as "bumptious perfection". Precisely.

I love the feeling of sweet decay which pervades the film from its opening frames. Everything is moist and green and teeming. When Humbert sees Lolita for the first time she is as wet and squeezable as a fresh peach. Later, when we meet Quilty, he is sitting on a hotel porch under a bug zapper - the bodies of these buzzing summer insects being fried alongside him as he guzzles his liquor. Even the interior sets are elaborate, arts and crafts lushness, with rich floral fabrics and warm wood. Quilty's house is so opulent, it looks like it was shot in the Hearst Castle's private apartments.
Ennio Morricone's music echoes this lush, sweet overripe feeling, beautifully. He uses lovely melodies and soaring strings, but leavens the sweetness with sour notes that suit the film's tone to perfection. Of course, the lushness cannot last, and the film ends in tragedy, just as it did in 1962, and as the book has always done. Quilty, of course, is the image of himself that Humbert recognises, but does not want to face. Eventually, he must: "I didn't think there was anyone else like me" he says. The final confrontation is horrifying, and every bit as good as James Mason's confrontation with Peter Sellers as Quilty in Kubrick's film.

With this Lolita, Adrian Lyne (Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal) seems to have gone all out for critical "legitimacy" as a director. He chose difficult material. In my opinion, he's made it.