Review: 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' Faithful in Spirit

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday November 19, 2022

Has there ever been a fully satisfying film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," scandalous for its frank sexuality, occasionally twee in style, but sublime for its intelligence and its earnest inquisition into how love involves both body and spirit?

The book was published in private editions in 1928 and '29, and only saw the light of day in uncensored form in Britain in 1960. It was long considered to be pornographic (both, one suspects, because of Lawrence's blend of playfulness and passion in the erotic content and also because it involved an upper-class English woman getting it on with a working class man: Such a shock to a culture so obsessed with class), and the first cinematic version — a French film made in 1955 by director Marc Allégret — was similarly banned in the U.S.

Though the work of one of England's most distinguished novelists, the book was only adapted for film in 1993 when Ken Russell (should we be surprised it was him?) turned it into a four-part TV series titled simply "Lady Chatterley," starring Sean Bean and Joely Richardson. By then, another French version had been released in 1981 (an "erotic drama" by "Emmanuelle" director Just Jaeckin), and two Indian films (one in 1973 and one in 1979) had more or less been "inspired" by the original novel.

More versions followed: Another French adaption, a Czech version, and even a softcore Filipino porno. Somehow, something seemed to be getting lost in translation.

Finally, the BBC rose to the challenge for a 2015 made-for-television movie. But, really... Doesn't Lawrence's groundbreaking classic deserve full-on, serious feature film treatment? What's the holdup been?

Finally, the real deal has arrived under the directorial hand of yet another French director, this time Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. But it's not one more instance of Gallic artistry sweeping in where puritanical stiff-upper-lip types fear to tread; this is an international endeavor, written by American screenwriter David Magee, distributed by Netflix, and starring a proper English cast. Non-binary actor Emma Corrin (seen lately in "My Policeman" next to Harry Styles and David Dawson) stars as Lady Constance Chatterley, while the certifiably hunky and suitably nuanced Jack O'Connell plays her lover, Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper of the estate owned by Connie's husband, Clifford (Matthew Duckett, by turns convincingly sympathetic and deplorable).

The gist of the plot is fairly well explained by the title, though Lawrence has managed to make it a few notches nobler than one might expect. Sir Clifford Chatterly has returned from World War I having lost the use of his legs, along with other appendages, thanks to battle injuries. Taking on the responsibility of running a grand estate, complete with farms and a coal mining operation, he drowns his sorrows in work; but he also frets about the need for an heir, which he can no longer supply.

Clifford suggests to Connie that she find a suitable donor for the cause of bearing a child. His idea is that he will pretend the child is his; the family name will thus continue and the estate will pass safely into the hands of a new generation. Connie, upset at the idea, only reconciles herself to the suggestion when she finds that she's attracted to the estate's handsome gamekeeper, a fellow looked upon as "gruff," but who's nursing his own war-related wounds: Namely, his wife started sleeping with other men while he was off fighting, and now she's living with a low-life called Ned (Nicholas Bishop).

Clifford's gambit carries a certain cold-blooded calculation about it; Candace is nothing like Clifford in this respect, and her affair with Oliver stems more from her discovery of him as a tender, attentive, and intelligent man. When Oliver impregnates her, Candace's needs and Clifford's seem to have intersected, but there can be no mutually satisfying path from there forward. Heartbreak is inevitable, but what will the cost be, and who will pay it?

Magee and Clermont-Tonnerre have modernized the story — not in setting or plot, but in execution, presenting a mature and artful work that doesn't romanticize old England as much as set a romance in opposition to it, finding tender, meaningful human connection. The lovers are allowed to be joyful, natural, and free, and Clermont-Tonnerre depicts their innocence and bliss in Edenic terms as they frolic in a summer rain and make love under trees.

This is the right approach. Any faithful movie adaptation needs to honor and understand Lawrence's approach and intentions for the story. That said, Magee has sidestepped some of the loopier, more distracting elements of Lawrence's text. Not once do we hear reference to "John Thomas" and "Lady Jane," or hear Constance's open-minded father declare her to be a "bonny Scotch trout" (though the screenplay does, interestingly, give his best lines to Hilda [Faye Marsay], Constance's free-spirited, but disapproving, sister).

We can also count ourselves lucky that the film's sex scenes are stirring in all the right ways without giving us a cinematic equivalent of Lawrence's descriptions of "springing seed" and feverishly kinetic flesh. In other words, the film is faithful to the book, but not slavishly so. Its departures delete the source novel's campy elements, and so elevate material that's fundamentally sensitive, unapologetic, and smart.

There are those even now who will cluck at the film's nudity, gracious and integral to the story as it is. Never mind them. I'll paraphrase the kindly Mrs. Bolton (Joely Richardson, in a lovely revisitation to the story), who acts as caretaker to Clifford but who sympathizes with Constance and Oliver: It's a love story, not a smut-fest, and beautifully celebratory of both body and soul.

"Lady Chatterley's Lover" premieres in theaters Nov. 23 and streams on Netflix starting Dec. 2.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.