Credits include Lolita; Damage; Reversal of Fortune; The French Lieutenant’s Woman
The voice is thoroughly English, authoritative accents delivered in a languid manner. A deep voice, all port and cigars, in tones that suggest the oak-panelled interior of a gentlemen’s club. Its owner, actor Jeremy Irons, was in Australia recently for the opening of two of his new films. Chinese Box (directed by Wayne Wang) has opened in Sydney […] and Lolita (directed by Adrian Lyne) has been passed for showing in Australia with an R rating by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, but the Howard Government is considering banning it.
Irons’ voice and persona signify an iconic Englishness that has informed films from The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Irons’ first starring role in 1981) to Louis Malle’s Damage, from television’s Brideshead Revisited to the recent The Man in the Iron Mask and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty. On occasion, it has been his cultured English voice that has distinguished the evil-doer from the rest (a device not uncommon these days) in the Hollywood mainstream in movies like Die Hard: With a Vengeance (with Irons the mad bomber) and The Lion King (with Irons voicing the part of the soured and treacherous Scar).
How English is the man behind the voice? The response is swift: ‘I live in Ireland.’ Then, reconsidering: ‘I don’t think I’m typically English, really. I’m not sure who the typical Englishman is now, though I think he lives in Essex, aspires to driving a Porsche and earning lots of money…We still live with the Thatcher legacy in England (sigh)…’
‘I don’t know, I hope I’m broad-minded, a gentleman, that I believe in fairness and justice – all those things that I hope remain English characteristics. But I’ve always been a bit of a loner, never liked being a club-member.’ (Scotch that image of the gentlemen’s club!) ‘I think English people like being club members. They like to know which niche they fit into and I’ve always avoided all of that. My pleasures are somewhat solitary, you know. I’m not a golfer and I like horse-riding, sailing and skiing.’
Travelling is a pleasure too. He has been here a number of times, and likes to visit Sydney. He was here early in the 1980s to film an Australian version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck with Liv Ullman, directed by Henri Safran.
Of solid middle-class background, Irons was born on the Isle of Wight in 1948, the son of a chartered accountant. ‘I had no desire to keep playing charming Englishmen. I’d die of boredom if I did that,’ he says. ‘I felt there was more interesting ground to cover.’ Instead, he has found ways of escape from the apparent sobriety of his background, and made a virtue of film roles of some thoroughly unpleasant people, such as the arrogant, self-serving (and sensitive) twin brother in Dead Ringers (directed by David Cronenberg, 1988). With Reversal of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder, 1990) Irons won an Academy Award for his performance as the morally corrupt millionaire who may or may not have tried to kill his wife, and in Damage he played a Tory politician who indulges in a rabid affair with his son’s fiancée. His paedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita has just joined the list.
Lolita, completed three years ago, is a second adaptation of the book by Vladimir Nabokov, published in the United States in 1958 while the author was professor of Russian literature at Cornell.
Irons is keen to emphasise that Nabokov’s controversial classic about a middle-aged European man’s infatuation with a 12-year-old American girl, with its overlay of satire on American cultural values, is the proper starting point. Not Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly satirical film of 1962, based on a screenplay by Nabokov, which the author later disowned. ‘The original is of course the book, don’t forget that! Kubrick’s attempt was the first attempt, ours the second.’
Irons was active with director Adrian Lyne in defence of the project from the start, and threatened to leave England (he later said it was only a throwaway line) when it looked as if Lolita might not gain distribution there. In an interesting set of parallels, Stanley Kubrick before him felt compelled to leave his country of birth when censorship problems dogged his Lolita in the early 1960s. He transferred his centre of operations to Boreham Wood studios in England, where he remained till his death last Sunday, days after completing his last movie, Eyes Wide Shut. After publication of his novel, Nabokov moved to Switzerland in 1959 and lived out the rest of his life there.
In the US, Lolita lost out on theatrical distribution and went to Showtime cable. It can be sensed that, throughout the saga, Irons has been asked one too many questions.
How does he feel about the role now? There’s a pause. ‘I’m rather proud of it. I think it’s a very complex role and it turned out to be a very interesting and fascinating movie. A very well-made movie.’ Technically, we’re on safe ground. ‘I’m pleased with it. I’m a little bored with people’s reactions.’ The voice has gone languid again. ‘All those people who haven’t seen it – their reactions. I quite like the reactions of people who have seen it.’
A moral tale? ‘It shows what happens if we do something wrong, as Oedipus does, as Titus Andronicus does, as Macbeth does, as all great stories do, or many great stories. If you step outside the bounds, you will be punished.’
What did he think about the representation of sex scenes in Lolita? ‘I think it’s pretty tactful, and not titillating and fairly strangely unnerving. There’s actually very little of it.’
Did he consider that he had taken a certain risk with this film, subject matter aside at this point, but in relation to its representations, given that Adrian Lyne had made films like 9 1/2 Weeks, Indecent Proposal, Fatal Attraction, films that had brought the director to prominence because of the very nature of their sexual representations?
‘We talked a lot about that, how he wanted to cover that area of the film. I thought he was basically an honest man and that he’d probably do his best by me, which is what he did. I was a great admirer of Fatal Attraction which I thought was a film that dealt with an area of phobia rather well, and I was also an admirer of Jacob’s Ladder (about a Vietnam veteran and made in 1990).
‘It’s always a risk when you make a film because you’re out of control of it when it starts to cut, but I thought he’d take care of me, which he did.’
Has Irons any personal project that he would like to bring to life? ‘At the moment I don’t have a story I want to get up and run with. Doesn’t preclude it happening in the future.’
‘At the moment I’m involved in a vast rebuilding project in Ireland which I’ve been doing since last June and that’s what is using my energies at the moment. It’s an old Irish tower house in Cork, a castle, built in about 1410 and ruined in 1600. We’re rebuilding it, to make it a place of refuge again, which is what it was originally.’ It is planned as a youth refuge.
Any particular character Irons still covets now? ‘There are many, many areas I’d like to work in [still]. The problem is I’m known for certain sorts of roles.’ Male obsessives? ‘Male obsessives, and slightly quirky, dark guys, enigmatic guys.’ Pause. ‘I’d like to do something different, you know, kick in with a comedy.’
Has he ever been directed by a woman? Lengthy pause. ‘I’ve been directed on stage by a woman but not in film. Why?’
Women screenwriters and directors, this could be your chance.