Emma Corrin And Jack O’Connell Are Sublime In Intoxicating Adaptation Of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ 

Netflix

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is so iconic that its narrative has become cliche and the scandal surrounding its publication, ban and later obscenity trial is legend. It was groundbreaking and highly controversial at the time of its release (initially published privately in 1928) due to the explicit sex scenes and a few unpublishable f-bombs. In more recent years, it has been adapted to screen, big and small, so many times (most recently in 2015 for the BBC) that it’s hard to reckon with how to adapt such a groundbreaking text for modern viewers and even more so when the story is so well-worn. Thankfully, French actor-turned-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre brings a confident lucidity to her adaption and a remarkably sensitive eye for sensuality.

The film’s numerous sex scenes are a marvel and particularly remarkable in the context of the film industry today, where there is a severe lack of sex, particularly sensuality, on screen. As well as the seemingly prudish nature of audiences today, every time the ‘sex scenes are only necessary if they advance the plot’ discourse rears its head online every once in a while. And while sex is rightly afforded the importance it needs in the story, de Clermont-Tonnerre recognizes there is more to explore within the narrative and balances these well while deftly imbuing these into the tensions between characters and, therefore, the sex scenes. The changes and anxieties of post-World War One society are an essential part of the story; the feeling of a world in flux is captured along with the devastation experienced in the Great War. Connie utters the novel’s famous words, “we’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen,” and while the line is said in a different context than the novel, the effect is the same. Industrialization, nature, the cohesion of mind and body and, most pertinently, the rigid class system are also explored.

The film follows Connie Reid (Emma Corrin), a bohemian and impulsive young woman who marries Baronet Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett) shortly before he leaves to fight in the Great War. Connie moves away from her sister Hilda (Faye Marsay) and social life in London to the sprawling Chatterley estate in the Midlands. Returned from war, Clifford is paralyzed from the waist down and needs constant care; Connie loves him and has no qualms with her unexpected duties. Corrin plays it with a lightness and hopefulness, which begins to dampen as the reality of Connie’s future becomes clear. As the couple cannot have sex due to Clifford’s injuries, he casually suggests she take a lover to fulfill her needs but, more importantly, his one need: an heir. He doesn’t care who it is as long as he’s upper class; he says in not so many words. This is where the relationship falls apart and while Connie desires touch and intimacy, she’s also not even afforded the emotional attention she craves. Enter Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell), the handsome and reserved gamekeeper she encounters on her lonely walks. The beginning of their affair feels natural and urgent, with an overwhelming sense of relief at finding each other that is masterfully captured by the omniscient camerawork but particularly by Corrin and O’Connell’s performances. They have an unmistakable chemistry and openness with one another that is crucial to the story they’re telling and would greatly suffer without.

Connie and Oliver’s love story is told in a ramshackle hut, by a stream in the woods and meadows during rainstorms; there is something primeval and folkloric about their trysts compared to the oppression of the stately home, talk of miners’ strikes and new technology being built and used by the suit-wearing men. They’ve built an Eden together, but their clear class difference is always conspicuous. The first uttering of  “mi’lady” by Mellors could seem silly and cliched in the hands of a lesser actor but is played by O’Connell with such casual deference as if those words and his position have been worn into him since he was a lad. The tension of the class difference also adds to the complex power dynamics in the sex scenes. Connie is the initiator, and Oliver’s unsureness is probably because he knows his position and how much he could lose. There is a specificity to the sex scenes that make them so unique; thoughts of character and narrative aren’t left behind by de Clermont-Tonnerre but are enhanced and enhance the scenes. This adds to the eroticism and gives the sex scenes as much narrative importance as any other. 

Netflix

The sex scenes are also shot with the same intimate and tactile camerawork that the rest of the film is. There are no grandiose wide shots of the stately home or sweeping hills; instead, the close shots and fluid camerawork are intimate, exposing and scrutinizing and enhanced by the bold score that is at times oppressive and alleviating. There is a tactile and visceral quality to our viewing experience, and while we feel engulfed in the private moments between the two lovers, tuning out the rest of the world, it’s still not divorced from the wider reality. Pressures from outside forces always feel ready to destroy their Eden, no matter how engulfed in the moment and each other they are.

In the film’s final act, local gossip erupts into consequences for the couple, and the palisades of their love start falling or are torn down, and this is where it falters slightly. The film’s style affects moments of euphoria and tension but not so much in outright conflict when our protagonists’ world has been opened up. However, the performances from the primary and supporting cast never falter and carry the story with them.

While not an entirely groundbreaking adaptation, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s undeniable eye for sensuality, along with performances from two of the most exciting young British actors, brings a fresh look to this iconic story in an age lacking desire and eroticism on screen. Hopefully, this excellent film doesn’t get buried by Netflix algorithms.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover will be available to watch on Netflix on December 2nd

by Madeleine Sinclair

Madeleine (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s LabyrinthThe Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.

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