Film Reviews

Classic Movie Of The Week: Lolita (1962)


Starring: James Mason, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers, Shelley Winters

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Vladimir Nabokov’s book was banned in many countries and was hugely controversial, and with good reason. No one thought that it could be made into a film, until Stanley Kubrick entered the scene, that lover of the sensational, controversial plot line. Using a script penned by Nabokov himself, he managed to make a film that was also banned for many years.

The improbably named Humbert Humbert (Mason) is a middle aged university lecturer who is looking for a room to rent. Initially, he’s put off by the pretensions and romantic desperation of the widowed landlady Charlotte Haze (Winters), but ends up taking the room to stay close to her 12 year old daughter, Lolita (Lyon). He elects to marry the mother to be close to the daughter, as be becomes more obsessed, and when Charlotte finds out, she runs into the street and is killed by a passing car. Now Humbert has the flirtatious Lolita all to himself, except that there always seems to be someone suspicious around (Sellers). He takes the girl on the road, and tries to control her every move and keep their relationship secret in his obsession with Lolita.

I hesitated to watch this film, because of the subject matter. But in the end, perhaps curiosity got the better of me. I think perhaps this is one of those films that is more famous for being controversial than it is for any real inner qualities that it may have, but by modern standards, it’s not all that shocking as far as gratuity goes.

Mostly, the film is quite sad. Although the story is told from Humbert’s perspective, it’s hard not to feel for Lolita. I think we’re meant to feel that she’s seductive and that somehow her flirty nature means that she’s not really harmed by what happens, or that she chooses it. And yet, as adults, we know that this simply isn’t how it works. Sue Lyon as Lolita is quite enchanting to watch. She’s lovely, bratty, flirty and young, with a sixties sex kitten style. Humbert is obsessed, a stalker in her own home, and controls her more and more following her mothers death, which he initially keeps from her. Humbert is jealous, won’t allow her to have a life or an education, and treats her like a doll. She’s genuinely devastated when she finds out that her mother is dead, and slowly she tries to find ways to escape her captor, and yet, she’s characterised as never really being damaged emotionally by it all, which is a bit scary.

By having the film from Humbert’s perspective, perhaps we are meant to laugh at how pathetic he is and how desperate. We’re meant to see how seductive the child is. And that’s a really weird thing. At the end of the film, Lolita has escaped, moved on, he feels that she never cared for him, and he’s a broken man bent on destroying himself and the man who ruined his plans to keep Lolita. And yet… the guy is a crazy stalker and pedophile. From the perspective of today, it feels like a really irresponsible film. A stupid and dangerous fantasy. And I think that perhaps that’s actually what the film is trying to point out. But if that’s the case, it’s a bit subtle.

So, not one for everyone out there, but from a technical perspective, it does show something of Kubrick’s excellent style and directing skills. And the acting is all quite incredible, each playing down what could otherwise have been hysterical characters. It feels to me like a bit of a stunt, making a banned book into a film to feed on the controversy. But Kubrick sure loved pushing the boat out like that, and was notoriously hard on his female actors, so perhaps Lolita was also right up his alley.

See It If: not for everyone, because of the subject matter, but definitely one for Kubrick fans. It’s not overly gratuitous for those of you considering watching, but unsure about how upsetting it will be to sit through.

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