Thursday, May 26, 2011

Lolita: Kubrick's controversial film finally available on Blu-ray

Lolita (drama, romance)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring James Mason, Peter Sellers, Shelley Winters and Sue Lyon

Warner Bros. | 1962 | 154 min | Released May 31, 2011

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0
French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish (Castillan and Latin): Dolby Digital 1.0

English SDH, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Portuguese (Brasil), Spanish (Castillan and Latin), Swedish

Single 25GB Blu-ray Disc

The Film 4/5

Stanley Kubrick was capable of working in any genre, ranging from historical epics to futuristic science fiction. He gave us serious drama and dark comedy. Lolita certainly has its serious moments, but it’s also filled with dark humor and is arguably his most controversial film.

Vladimir Nabokov’s book was about a 12-year-old girl and would have been an even more controversial film if Kubrick had kept Lolita at that age. In the film, Lolita (Lyon) is a 14-year-old and it changes the overall tone somewhat.

Professor Humbert Humbert (Mason) is a British author looking for a home in New Hampshire. He visits Charlotte Haze (Winters) who is looking to rent a room. Humbert is on the verge of leaving and looking elsewhere, but sees her daughter, Lolita, sunbathing in the garden. He decides to stay and becomes obsessed with her. From his viewpoint, Lolita is flirting with him. She kisses him and plays with her hula hoop right in front of him. Meanwhile, Charlotte is hoping to start a relationship of her own with Humbert and doesn’t notice the attention he gives Lolita.

Humbert’s obsession grows and he keeps a secret journal about his feelings, but he’s dismayed when Charlotte sends Lolita to summer camp 200 miles away. Charlotte then writes a letter to Humbert declaring her love for him and issues an ultimatum. She tells him to leave, or stay and marry her. He finds the letter hilarious and has no interest in her, but marries her to be close to Lolita. This act shows the extent of his obsession.

After the marriage, Charlotte decides to send Lolita to boarding school. Humbert fantasizes about killing her and spending the rest of his life with Lolita. Charlotte discovers his diary and true feelings and decides that she can’t live with the knowledge, leaving Humbert to pursue his plan.

Another key character is that of Clare Quilty (Sellers). The opening scene of the film shows Humbert tracking down Quilty and shooting him. The remainder of the film shows the events leading up to Quilty’s murder. Sellers plays the part well and tries to manipulate Humbert by pretending to be several different people. In Dr. Strangelove, the characters he portrays actually are separate individuals, but that’s not the case here. Sellers writes plays and wants Lolita to appear in one, but seems to have an ulterior motive.

We see everything from Humbert’s point of view and he’s also the narrator at times. Was Kubrick trying to make us empathize with Humbert’s feelings by placing us in his position? Was he trying to get us to root for Humbert and hope that he would somehow end up with Lolita?

The film is long at 154 minutes, but never seems to drag. Although we know that Humbert shoots Quilty, we don’t know why until we see the preceding events. Kubrick makes some of Lolita’s actions deliberately ambiguous so that we’re left wondering whether she was flirting with Humbert. The overall impression is that she’s not as innocent as she may appear.

The film is mainly about obsession and its impact on people’s lives. Humbert’s thoughts are far from pure. He wants Lolita and, although he doesn’t kill Charlotte, he certainly considers doing so. The choice to make Lolita 14 helped avoid some of the controversy, but this is still a film that will be emotionally upsetting for some. Much of its impact depends on our imagination and will vary from one viewer to the next.

Mason is particularly effective as the polite Englishman, while Sellers and Winters also play their parts well. Lyon doesn’t get much time on screen considering she’s the motivation for everything that Humbert does, but she’s believable in the role.

With the release of Lolita and Barry Lyndon, and The Killing announced for August (with Killer’s Kiss among the special features), all of Kubrick’s films will be available on Blu-ray with the exception of Fear and Desire which he disowned.

Video Quality 3.5/5
Lolita looks a little disappointing on Blu-ray. The 154-minute running time is contained on a single-layered disc with a modest bitrate, making me wonder whether the quality was compromised. The black and white presentation is lacking in detail and generally looks soft. It doesn’t hold up well alongside a title such as Psycho. Grain is light and some scenes do look quite impressive, but I hoped for more. It’s still a clear upgrade over the DVD of course.

Audio Quality 4/5
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track is a definite upgrade. The mono presentation packs quite a punch and dialogue is clear throughout. We can also hear background effects such as water filling Charlotte’s bath. There are no disturbing pops or crackles. The sound quality couldn’t have been much better considering the limitations of the source.

Special Effects 0/5

With the exception of a 1-minute trailer in SD, there’s nothing included apart from the film.

Lolita demonstrates the variety of Kubrick’s subject matter and challenges the audience. I would recommend the Blu-ray to any Kubrick fan as I believe it’s one of his best films. It has drama, a sense of mystery and a lot of humor. It’s an easy decision for fans of the film with’s asking price of $14.99 at the time of writing.

For those new to the film, be aware that the presentation is merely adequate. The story won’t be for everyone and could drag if you aren’t familiar with Kubrick’s style.

I’m delighted to have it in my collection, but did hope for a release with better video quality and extensive special features.


  1. A must read and a literary classic. Nabokov represents emotions and thoughts with mathematical visual precision. You can feel that each word is weighed against the rest of the sentence, against the rest of the paragraph against the rest of the novel, following the strict tone of the entire piece. Unity is one of the main features of art.
    Every page gets laughs.. sometimes its laugh out loud funny. A delight to read..

    1. I must admit that I have never read the novel.