Producers: Laurence Mark, Peter Czernin and Graham Broadbent Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre Screenwriter: David Magee Cast: Emma Corrin, Jack O’Connell, Matthew Duckett, Joely Richardson, Faye Marsay, Ella Hunt, Anthony Brophy and Nicholas Bishop Distributor: Netflix
D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel, his last, is regarded as a classic today, included as required reading in the syllabi of many college courses in English literature. It was not always so, of course: deemed obscene not merely for its adultery-centered plot but its then-explicit sex scenes and rough language, it was effectively banned in many countries—including the U.K. and the US—until the 1960s, after court decisions liberated it from puritanical infamy.
Previous screen and television adaptations have been neither numerous nor particularly well-received. This newest one is perhaps the best of the lot, but it fails to convey what many have argued to be the novel’s deeper nuances and themes. Except for the occasional explicit sex scene, it’s fairly typical Masterpiece Theatre-style fare, and then not an example of that genre’s highest quality. Perhaps “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is simply one of those books whose peculiar genius can’t be captured on film, although that probably won’t stop its admirers from trying.
In any event, David Magee and Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre have taken an approach that’s faithful to the central domestic drama while slighting what might be called some of Lawrence’s broader socio-economic concerns. Constance Reid (Emma Corrin) weds Sir Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett) just as he’s departing for the trenches of World War I. When he returns, his body has been shattered, and even after treatment and rehabilitation he’s paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair.
Among those whom Clifford hires in his effort to restore the family estate of Wragby in the Midlands, near the mining village of Tevershall which the Chatterleys dominate and far from the London where free-spirited Connie had been raised, is handsome ex-soldier Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell) as gamekeeper. As Clifford becomes increasingly obsessed with developing a career as a writer and increasing profit from the mines, and Lady Chatterley is freed of many of the duties of caring for him by the arrival of housekeeper Mrs. Bolton (Joely Richardson), Connie and Oliver will stumble into a torrid affair. Her feelings for him grow not only more passionate but emotionally deeper, and she becomes pregnant.
Clifford had already raised the possibility that she might have a child with another man that could be passed off as his heir, but the class differences make his acceptance of one by Mellors an impossibility. Connie, moreover, wants to divorce him to be with her lover, and he adamantly refuses. The situation is further complicated by the fact that gossip has already been circulating about the affair, and that Mellors is also married but separated from a wife, who is happy to fan the scandal’s flames. Some attention is given to Connie’s accusation that her husband’s treatment of the miners in a quest to industrialize his business operation is inhumane, but the film downplays Lawrence’s concern with these broader issues of class and economics, concentrating on the personal side of things. It also opts for an ending considerably more optimistic than the book’s ambiguous one.
The adjective that most accurately describes the filmmakers’ treatment of this narrative is adequate. The acting is committed, but despite the attempt to give the scenes of Corrin and O’Connell in bed together, or gamboling in the grass, an erotic charge, the two never develop a powerfully sensual chemistry. (Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme and editor Géraldine Mangenot are also put through their paces making them explicit but not excessively so; still, viewers are advised that the nudity is considerable.) Both come across as a bit pallid, but compared to Duckett, who plays Chatterley as a moustache-twirling snob, they’re generally acceptable. The best work comes from Richardson, who coincidentally played Lady Chatterley in Ken Russell’s 1993 British mini-series opposite Sean Bean, which until now has probably been the best-regarded adaptation. The film looks fine, with Karen Wakefield’s production design and Emma Fryer’s costumes fine; Isabella Summers’ background score adds a modernist touch that, in this context, comes across as incongruous, even if it’s fitting in terms of the novel.
In the end, this version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is generally true to Lawrence in the obvious ways, but not in the more subtle ones.