Starring: James Mason, Sue Lyon, Shelley Winters
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Running Time: 153 mins
Lolita is an American/British film about a middle-aged professor who develops an infatuation with a fourteen year-old girl who lives at the house he is staying in.
Lolita to this day remains one of the most controversial Hollywood movies ever made, yet I must say that it’s difficult to see why. Of course, its subject matter and source material are enough to make you shudder, but there’s something about Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation that strangely misses the mark.
Of course, censors of the day played a big role in muzzling the most uncomfortable content of a sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and a 14 year-old girl. However, despite a few brief moments where the film really taps into its subject matter in horrifyingly unsettling fashion, Lolita is actually rather a tame drama.
Now, by no means do I mean to say that this film should be more graphic or plainly immoral in its portrayal of child sex abuse. Lolita does all it can to leave the most unpleasant details unsaid, filtering the shocking realities of its story through subtext more than what we actually see on screen.
In fact, with the exception of a few moments, we see nothing that even comes close to a sexual encounter on screen. On the one hand, that’s good to see, because the film is avoids gratuitous and immoral content and aims to tell its story more subtly.
On the other hand, that means it really misses out on the hard-hitting truths of the matter at hand, misguidedly turning its story into something far lighter and more palatable than it perhaps ought to be.
Those few moments that dare to cross the line are without doubt the film’s standout sequences, opening up the nasty, revolting reality of the central relationship and making you feel not only uncomfortable, but disgusted at what’s going on before your eyes.
What’s more, there are elements of the performances by James Mason and Peter Sellers that conjure up genuinely revolting and evil characteristics, while young Sue Lyon’s very mature turn also plays into the two men’s horrific indulgences.
Yet despite that, it feels strange to watch a two and a half hour film about this subject matter and not feel constantly disgusted, or at the very least uncomfortable. And that points to a misguided approach to adapting the novel by director Stanley Kubrick, as well as the role of Hollywood censors of the age.
One big mistake that Kubrick makes in his reworking of the novel is what feels like an often sympathetic portrait of what should be the film’s main antagonist: Humbert Humbert (played by James Mason).
In contrast to Peter Sellers’ Clare Quilty, Humbert not only doesn’t come across as evil or predatory, but to a certain extent assured and even likable. Mason’s performance hints briefly at his darker true nature, but too often does he prove a competent and actually tolerable presence for who he truly is.
Peter Sellers does better to give a more revolting, evil performance, although his appearance is too brief, and the realities of his intentions are left too much up to inferred subtext until the very end.
What’s more, the dynamic between James Mason and Sue Lyon feels almost too much like the superficial stepfather-stepdaughter relationship, to the extent that it actually impedes you from being able to read the sexual subtext the film is trying to present.
Without doubt, Hollywood censors of the day played a big part in keeping the film’s more insalubrious side as invisible as possible, meaning that the true nature of that central relationship was never going to be as direct and evident as the novel.
After all, Stanley Kubrick is one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers, and for him to make a film with such horrifying content that often feels so tame is almost paradoxical.
However, while the censors definitely played a part, that doesn’t necessarily mean Kubrick had his hands completely tied.
Take Cape Fear as an example. Also released in 1962, the film at times deals with similar themes of rape and child abuse, yet it manages to leave those themes relatively unsaid while developing a powerfully nasty and unsettling atmosphere around its main antagonist, played by Robert Mitchum.
Because of that, I refuse to believe that the failure of Lolita to really tell its story in horrifyingly uncomfortable fashion is entirely down to the censors of its day. They certainly had a big part to play, but I feel that Kubrick doesn’t do enough here to bring the shocking reality of this story home through an overwhelming and uncomfortable atmosphere.
That’s completely out of character for Kubrick – known as the director of some of cinema’s most overwhelmingly disturbing films of all time (The Shining, A Clockwork Orange etc.)
Unfortunately, that’s what makes Lolita a bit of a misfire in my view. It’s an engaging watch with immense talent behind and in front of the camera, while its best moments are staggeringly uncomfortable – albeit too few and far between.
The content of the film’s source material is such that I expected so much more, but a combination of censorship and an uncharacteristically weak atmosphere from director Stanley Kubrick means that Lolita is far from the powerfully unsettling assessment of child sex abuse and pedophilia that its story promises to be. That’s why I’m giving it a 7.4 overall.