Lady Chatterley's Lover review: An invigorating spin on the pioneering novel
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's adaptation of the classic DH Lawrence book is fluidly shot and overflowing with passion.
Female desire is unleashed with scandalous consequences in this invigorating spin on DH Lawrence’s pioneering novel from French actress-turned-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, the filmmaker behind 2019’s much-admired The Mustang. Fluidly shot and overflowing with passion, Lady Chatterley’s Lover hopes to win over a new generation of admirers and satisfy fans of one particular earlier adaptation by employing some very canny casting.
Fresh from their breakthrough, award-winning performance as Princess Diana in Netflix’s The Crown, Emma Corrin casts off their inhibitions as well as their clothes in the role of Lady Constance Chatterley.
Soon after marrying the seemingly sweet Sir Clifford (Matthew Duckett), the young and vivacious Constance finds herself playing nursemaid to her war-wounded and wheelchair-using husband and pining for her life in London. With Clifford succumbing to bitterness, and sex – or even affection – off the agenda, Constance’s existence quickly becomes a miserable one.
Keen to conjure an heir to secure the future of his beloved Midlands estate Wragby, but unable to produce one himself, Clifford permits Constance to entertain herself elsewhere, providing that she “govern her emotions accordingly”.
Despite him not being at all the sort that the snobbish Clifford had in mind as an unwitting sperm donor, Constance falls into the arms of the estate’s gruffly attractive gamekeeper Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell of ’71 and Skins fame, who is currently starring in SAS Rogue Heroes).
This man of few words is a smart and capable former army lieutenant who has been kicked right back to his previous place in society following the end of the First World War.
And the most famous Lady Chatterley to date returns, with the star of Ken Russell’s four-part 1993 BBC adaptation, Joely Richardson, appearing in the role of Mrs Bolton, the widowed nurse who takes over Constance’s caring responsibilities when she falls ill, which ultimately frees her up to start an affair.
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It’s a small but nicely knowing turn from Richardson, who brings sensitivity and a slightly raised eyebrow, and whose character has the potential to be a spy for Clifford or an ally for Constance. Richardson’s co-star in the earlier version, Sean Bean, alas, is nowhere to be seen.
Lawrence’s original 1928 text had to wait until 1960 before it could be widely published, resulting in an obscenity trial, which it won. If the material has lost its ability to shock over the years, Clermont-Tonnerre really goes for it with the sex scenes, which range from the hasty and believably awkward, to hot and heavy assignations where the pair ostensibly commune with nature, though nature gets largely ignored.
The attraction between the leads and portrayal of this odd couple’s recognition of each other as kindred spirits is where the film hits the spot, with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (The Theory of Everything) capturing their connection beautifully.
The apparently insurmountable class gulf is credibly relayed and still has relevance, with the charismatic, Midlands-born O’Connell bringing an authentic earthiness and admirable subtlety to his portrayal of Mellors. At the centre of the film’s storm, the elegant but emotionally accessible Corrin undergoes a mesmerising journey from a wide-eyed and excitable newlywed, to jaded dogsbody, before emerging reawakened and defiant.
When faced with this pair, all else fades somewhat unfortunately into the background. Striking miners add a bit of political colour but appear too fleetingly to have any impact, while supporting characters are mostly of little consequence.
Faye Marsay makes an impression as Constance’s free-spirited, strong-minded sister Hilda, yet Duckett is saddled with a depressingly two-dimensional role, with Clifford shown to be no more than a heartless inconvenience, despite his own tragic backstory.
The script from Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Magee (Life of Pi, Finding Neverland) is better on the lovers’ burning passion than it is fleshing out the world around them.
The film stays close to Constance throughout and, with the character seen through the eyes of a female director, it feels like an apt way to re-approach this ground-breaking portrayal of a woman’s wants and needs. Moreover, Clermont-Tonnerre’s Gallic frankness towards sex and her ability to deliver a fresh perspective means she’s a good fit for this most subversive of British period pieces.
Female pleasure is thankfully no longer a radical concept, but it turns out that if told well and with chemistry this sizzling then Lady Chatterley’s Lover still has its place.
Lady Chatterley's Lover will be released in select cinemas on 25th November 2022 and on Netflix on 2nd December 2022. Sign up for Netflix from £6.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.