Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Emma Corin and Jack O’Connell in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Image courtesy Netflix

 

MA 15+, 126 minutes

4 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

With an eye to the young female demographic, this new version of one of the world’s most famously banned books, has slipped onto the screen when we were least expecting it. Who knew we needed a fiction feature about the aristocracy making an ass of itself, when it is actually doing a pretty good job of that already.

The themes of class transgression that contributed to the book’s notoriety in its time look fusty and irrelevant now, so the daring affair between a lady and the gamekeeper won’t prompt the same controversy it once did. The focus of this latest version of the Lady Chatterley story, directed by French filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnere, is sexual awakening and physical passion, the naughty bits that got D. H Lawrence’s last book banned in some places for more than 30 years. Besides this, it is a love story.

If the writing doesn’t do justice to the indignation and vigor of the book, the lead performances and beautiful aesthetic surely do

The classic novel always was less about the lady’s lover, a man employed on her husband’s estate, than the young woman discovering desire in his arms. First published in Italy and France in the late 1920s, Lawrence’s book in uncensored form didn’t see the light of day in England until 1960, and even then it was the subject of a famous court case. It was also banned for decades in the US, Japan, Canada, India and here in Australia.

While notoriety won’t accompany this beautifully and tastefully staged screen adaptation from De Clermont-Tonnere, the generous performances by the lovers, Emma Corrin as Constance Chatterley and Jack O’Connell as Oliver Mellors the gamekeeper, surely will. Corrin in particular has a lot of screen presence, however, and struck me as very convincing in her role. You may recall she was the young Diana Spencer in The Crown. She is an actor to watch.

Sir Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), a minor nobleman whom Connie married during wartime, is a lot less engaging. The marriage gets off to a good start, but when he returns from war a paraplegic, the couple become increasingly estranged. He throws himself into the management of his Midlands estate and his coal mines, leaving his wife to her own devices. These include reading James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Wanting an heir to inherit his wealth and title, Clifford encourages her to contemplate having a brief affair. In time, she warms to the idea.

An occasional voiceover reveals the content of Connie’s letters to her sister Hilda (Fay Marsay). It builds the portrait of a progressive young woman with a lust for life. A thoroughly modern, liberated woman, perhaps even woke, who will clearly appeal to young audiences today.

On her walks around the estate, Connie often heads downhill from the Wragby Hall towards the gentle woodland on the other side of the boundary fence. After crossing a pretty running brook, she enters the secluded clearing where a pheasant hatchery stands. The nursery is overseen by Oliver. After he appears to check on the chicks, she makes the first move. When their lovemaking is over, he tips his hat to her in a quaintly respectful farewell m’lady.

The extended sequences of their lovemaking are dreamily beautiful but also naturalistic, with a focus on female arousal that is modern and frank. As the trysts become more frequent, Connie and Oliver find carefree common ground and fall in love.

Sexual passion is typically associated with warm colours on screen, so much so that this coding is probably a cliché now. The beautiful blue lensing by cinematographer Benoit Delhomme here however isn’t at all at odds with the passions on display.

Blue can be the warmest colour, especially as it captures the occasional dash of red in Connie’s dress or a vase of tulips she is arranging

While the issues of class that generated controversy for Lawrence’s book are surely less potent today, some of Sir Clifford’s lines are really inflammatory. As an aristocrat disabled by the war, he represents an impotent dying breed, one of the last of the English gentlemen, though he still considers himself born to rule.I

It’s a while since I’ve read the classic novel. It’s my sense that while David Magee’s screenplay doesn’t do justice to the indignation and the vigour of Lawrence’s writing, the lead performances of this period drama and its beautiful aesthetic surely do.

First published in the Canberra Times on 17 December 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes