********************THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOLERS*****************************
I saw LITTLE SWEETHEART on TV when it came out in 1989, but didn’t record it, and have always wanted to see it again since. I was finally able to recently, thanks to YouTube, or rather the YouTuber who posted it. It seems that many people who saw it found it memorable, so it is a pity that the film is not available on DVD.
This British made-for-TV movie is based on a novel called THE NAUGHTY GIRLS, written by Arthur Wise. A couple, Robert and Dorothea, are on the run – he is married and has embezzled money, and she is his mistress. In a small, isolated holiday resort, they meet two little girls, Thelma and Elizabeth. Out of boredom, the girls spy on the couple, and when they find out about their situation, blackmail them. Thelma is the more dangerous personality of the two, and when Elizabeth wants to stop what they are doing, Thelma shoots her with a gun that she stole from Robert, leaving her for dead. When she is reported missing, Robert becomes the prime suspect, now on the run for a crime he did not commit. He is gunned down by the police while trying to escape, but Elizabeth survives and returns, presumably to reveal the truth.
A clever con man reduced to begging a precocious, cruel little girl not to ruin his life – who would be brave enough to play such a part, and who could pull it off more effectively than John Hurt? If that was in line with his particular penchant for playing victims, he gets the rare chance to show a charming and sexy side in addition here. A contemporary interview in RADIO TIMES even called it one of his most romantic parts to date – relatively speaking, since the story obviously isn’t very romantic. But rather than once more sing the praises of one of my favorite actors, I would like to comment on a subject that I find extremely vexing: children and sex in the movies.
This film has often been compared with BAD SEED. There are some similarities, whether by direct influence or mere coincidence, but except for the premise of a child being capable of murder, I find them hardly worth mentioning. I enjoyed BAD SEED for its critique of psychoanalysis, but it ends up going too far in the other direction: it regards upbringing as irrelevant and blames heredity (the girl’s biological mother was a serial killer as well). By contrast, LITTLE SWEETHEART proposes several factors (innate disposition, experience of loss, cultural influences such as television), without insisting on any explanation. Furthermore, even though it does deliver harsh poetic justice, it is not as ridiculously moralistic as the film version of BAD SEED (while trying to get rid of the last piece of evidence of one of her murders, the little girl is struck by a lightening bolt, as if by divine justice). Hence, LITTLE SWEETHEART is less intent on conveying a message, which – depending on one’s point of view – either makes it seem less serious or more subtle. In any case, I found it more suspenseful, because the adult characters add more to the plot. BAD SEED comes across as a very talky (almost discursive) stage play, and LITTLE SWEETHEART, despite its outdoor setting, is somewhat limited by its TV budget, so both films mainly engage the viewer through story and acting, and both are very effective in that regard.
What puzzles me more and even disturbs me is that LITTLE SWEETHEART is often compared with LOLITA. Even allowing for the possibility of innuendo, there is at least one crucial difference: In contrast to Humbert Humbert, there is no reason to assume that Robert Burger (Hurt’s character) has paedophilic notions. This is neither necessary for the plot nor do I see it implied anywhere, and I don’t think that Hurt would have been unable or unwilling to portray it if the role required it (see, for example, MIRANDA , which comes close to implying that Hurt’s character had a sexual relationship with the young girl that he picked up from the street, with Christina Ricci being an obvious choice for such a role). Robert may be flattered by the girls’ attentions (as his girlfriend Dorothea suggests) and treat them as “ladies”, because he believes that he can manipulate them with his charm as a man, but this is plausibly motivated by his immoral yet relatively “normal” interests (the money and his mistress).
Hence, finding the girls (who are even younger than Lolita) sexually suggestive is either a questionable consequence of the portrayal, whether intentional or not (eg the sunglasses and ice cream cone may either be a reference to the LOLITA poster, or they may just be common props of American girlhood), or a consequence of the disposition of the beholder. Be that as it may, it is definitely not a character point of view, as it is in LOLITA (which made it so difficult to transfer the novel to the screen; I haven’t read the source novel for LITTLE SWEETHEART, but a commentator wrote that there was no such element in it).
Even though I don’t believe in childhood sexuality as it was conceived by psychoanalysis, I don’t regard children as completely unaware of sex or feel that they should be, so I don’t think that I am prone to moral panic. Nonetheless, in view of such interpretations as the comparison with LOLITA, even just placing child characters in sexual situations seems to have its dangers (for example, the girls spy on Robert and Dorothea having sex on the beach, with a mixture of curiosity and disgust, which isn’t sexual desire quite yet). Hence it is a difficult question how far the film is to blame for its reputation. In any case, it would be a pity if this is all the film is remembered for. On the one hand, it is much too harmless for that (so it is neither equipped to deal with such difficult topics, nor – thankfully – is it likely to satisfy paedophiles), on the other, it has too many merits to deserve being put into the wrong category, at least thematically.