Obsession is a theme Kubrick has explored to some degree through all his films, sometimes it’s a sideshow and sometimes it’s pushed to the forefront. Think of Joker’s desire to kill and become a killer in Full Metal Jacket, Sterling Hayden grasping for the money in The Killing or don’t think about Nick’s inability to shake off thoughts of his wife being unfaithful in the terminally dull Eye’s Wide Shut.
James Mason and Peter Sellars should be applauded for the bravery in decisions to play such reprehensible characters. There is no wounded glory or sympathy asked for in their performances or in the way their urges are presented here. Mason plays Humbert’s carefully hidden embracing of his desires in marked contrast to Sellar’s hedonistic Quilty, a man who induges his every whim through whatever means necessary without thought or care for the consequences. Obviously hamstrung by an overly censored script they communicate their lusts through inferral and furtive glances thrown around in a mixture of guilt and yearning.
Sue Lyon has the title role and despite it’s restrictions, balances sexual maturity with childlike attitudes and innocence. Asked to perform a dual role in acting young enough to engage the viewer in the crime and yet old enough to not utterly repulse an audience perceived as prudish and a censorship board that only recently allowed the word “panties” up on screen. She handles those difficulties well and stops just short of allowing a totally sexist “she was asking for it” attitude to suffuse the mind and skew the sympathies.
As ever, it comes back to Kubrick, a perfectionist and storyteller of repute who here seems to be warming up for his next two films (2001 and Strangeove) that would define his career and in some ways, the next twenty years of commercial films. Yet to hit full stride, some of the shots and their placements appear tentative and experimental. The opening sequence of a car driving through mist and then a murder is pure Kubrick, overacting, large open spaces and the low drives of all men are all present.
In the end though, Lolita is about being obsessed with something that could potentially hurt you. A universal feeling and all the more uncomfortable for it.
As an afterthought – Adrian Lyne had another stab at the material in 1997, a man never afraid of using another ceiling fan or venetian blind to make a point, a man responsible for the even handed , balanced view of sex depicted in 9 and a 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction. Only Paul Veerhoven and Ron Howard could possibly have been worse choices.