The couple at the centre of Lady Chatterley’s Lover dared to defy societal norms as they embarked on a steamy affair. The latest film adaptation of DH Lawrence’s novel retains that spirit, and dares to present a tender love story where one might expect a raunchy period redo of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Starring Emma Corrin as the aristocratic Connie Reid and Jack O’Connell as her gamekeeper lover, Oliver Mellors, the film feels at first a faithful adaptation of the controversial novel — there are no self-aware winks to the camera, no sudden bursts of punk rock music — but its timeless themes are also rather timely, especially in a society where men rarely acknowledge their inadequacies and repeatedly assert control over the lives of others.
The recently married Connie settles into a life of domesticity as her husband ships off to war a pompous snob and returns a wheelchair-bound paraplegic. Acutely aware of his impotence, and seemingly having prioritised an heir over an orgasm, he presents Connie with an offer. She can get pregnant by another man, so long as she doesn’t fall in love with him, and provided that he can pass the child off as his own.
There is no acknowledgement of his selfishness, nor of his disrespectfully dismissive suggestion; Sir Clifford Chatterley is, after all, treating his wife like some sort of machine, designed only to provide him with a successor. But his seemingly coded words are explicitly clear about one thing: not only must Connie avoid catching feelings for this other man, she must make sure that in choosing him, she doesn’t stray too far from their own kind. Sir Clifford sees this not as an invitation to explore an open marriage, but as evidenced by one of his guests apparently hitting on Connie shortly after this chat, a chance to control yet another aspect of her life.
But things spiral when Connie, showing remarkable agency, makes the first move on Oliver. She’d seen him a couple of times before, and quietly smiled to herself at the thought of ‘what if’, but this is the first time that she takes action. But what begins as a frank exploration of human desire turns into an achingly romantic story about yearning and loss towards the end, when the town begins gossiping about Connie’s indiscretions and her husband lashes out at her for besmirching the family name.
Despite the erotically-charged second act, which is filled with wall-to-wall graphic nudity, this isn’t the lasting impression that Lady Chatterley’s Lover leaves you with. And much of it is down to the quiet stubbornness with which Corrin plays Connie, and the sheer raw magnetism that O’Connell has been exuding on screen, with dignity, since his Skins days. Their chemistry is undeniable, and their early scenes together are fraught with a heady combination of tension and excitement. But youthful attraction makes way for a sense of familiarity and comfort as the movie itself matures into something more staid.
The human drama is set against the backdrop of a miners’ protest, as Sir Clifford, after a failed attempt at becoming a writer, busies himself with bullying those less privileged than himself. The class struggle, on the other hand, unfolds in the bed, the bath, and beyond.
Perhaps under somebody else’s direction, Lady Chatterley’s Lover would’ve taken a sleazier shape. But French filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre injects it with an earnest wistfulness, which continues to be felt even in the film’s knee-shaking coda. In her hands, could’ve come across like the cinematic equivalent of a summer fling feels like an epic romance, as it should.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Director – Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Cast – Emma Corrin, Jack O’Connell, Matthew Duckett, Joely Richardson
Rating – 4/5