Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. Netflix releases the film on its streaming platform on Friday, December 2.
When D.H. Lawrence’s final novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was widely published for the first time in 1960 (other versions circulated in 1928 and 1929), the book ignited a firestorm that eventually led to an obscenity trial (won by its publisher) and massive sales. Decades later, the novel remains a source of titillation for many (including those who turned it into dozens of R- and X-rated films and TV series), even if its reputation has generally faded into “It’s smutty, right?” It is, of course, so much more.
When Penguin Books was prosecuted under the UK’s Obscene Publications Act 1959, it wasn’t just the book’s language (including the repeated use of many “unprintable” four-letter words) or the explicit sex scenes. Lawrence’s also lovers dared to cross class lines in a time when that was a shocking act of its own. In this latest adaptation, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s gorgeous, dreamy, very sexy take on the material, much of that drama has been flattened. Instead, it offers the chance to probe the emotional texture of the story and gives stars Emma Corrin (who uses they/them pronouns) and Jack O’Connell two of the best roles of their careers.
In this new vision of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” gameskeeper Oliver Mellors (O’Connell) is a former army lieutenant and the brightest student his former village school ever saw, while Constance Chatterley’s (Corrin) background as the daughter of an artist is given a somewhat thin “but she’s sort of bohemian, too!” treatment. The pair are on more equal ground, which only makes their passionate bond more believable, more sexy, and more fraught. Rest assured, this is still “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” (And, not to be crass: The sex scenes are damn hot indeed.)
When the film opens, young Constance Reid has just married Sir Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett) in the waning days of World War I. Clifford is due back at the front the very next morning, but that’s not the only reason for the Chatterleys’ somewhat slapdash wedding; as Constance’s sister Hilda (Faye Marsay) giddily suggests, her little sister is all too eager to open her, uhm, heart to any man who asks for it. Still, whatever sexual experience Constance enjoyed before her marriage (there are repeated mentions of a “German boy”), the heat is definitely not on with Clifford.
Things get worse when he returns from the war, paralyzed from the waist down, an injury that robs him both of his figurative manhood (he “just can’t anymore”) and his humanity (soon enough, Clifford’s true colors start to shine). When the pair arrive at Wragby, the Chatterleys’ Midlands estate, Constance commits to “bringing her” — meaning the estate — “back to life,” but it’s clear to everyone that really, she’s talking about herself.
Corrin’s performance helps guide Constance (and the film itself) through a somewhat shaky first act. The film offers them a rich, complex, demanding role, but much of it resides in the performer’s incredible sense of their own body. It goes from pinched and hunched and scary-thin before the character literally opens herself up to Oliver, and back again. (Corrin stars in another star-crossed romantic adaption also out this fall, “My Policeman,” in which they’re required to share the drama with five other stars; “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” gives them the full stage, however, one they are more than capable of dominating.)
For now, however, Constance is unhappy and that’s not at all helped by Clifford’s bright idea that she might give the family an heir by sleeping with another man. For Clifford, who loves nothing more than making big demands that serve him, it’s easy — like “a trip to the dentist,” he says. For Constance, it breaks her in body and spirit. Eventually she acquiesces for something to do, to please Clifford, and because the gameskeeper afoot is very attractive, the kind of guy who raises baby chicks and reads James Joyce.
O’Connell has made a career of stiff upper lips, from “Starred Up” to “Unbroken,” and that natural reserve proves a canny match for this Oliver Mellors. He’s a solitary figure with a sad backstory, although David Magee’s script oddly glosses over bits of Oliver’s pre-Connie life that are essential to understanding why he’s so trapped. When Constance offers Oliver her hand (and then more, lots more; both stars spend a lot of time fully naked), he can’t resist. Soon, she can’t either.
As Constance and Oliver’s bond deepens, their trysts only grow more passionate (a key sequence from the novel in which the pair come to mutual orgasm while cavorting in the forest is staggering, and leads into a breathtaking montage of similarly stirring lovemaking). Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography is dreamy, filmy, lush, and intimate, and his interest in close-ups of faces (and, ahem, other parts) adds yet another emotional layer to an already emotional film.
Emma Fryer’s enviable costumes for Constance tell a rich color story. Her early looks, all deep yellows and reds, make her stand out against her drab surroundings and eventually echo the bright feathers of the pheasants that help bring her and Oliver together. Oliver is all blue, monochromatic and steadfast, a color choice that eventually wears off on Constance, whose wardrobe includes more blue tones as the pair deepens their relationship.
Despite the stars’ strong performances and the high level of craft, the film struggles in its final act. Constance and Oliver’s earliest worries are practical — will they be caught in the act? What do their respective marital statuses mean for the life they want together? Later in the film, Magee’s script and Geraldine Mangenot’s jittery edits attempt to pile on the book’s themes of small-town politics, class warfare, and the danger of gossip.
Also worrying: Clifford’s nurse Mrs. Bolton (a miscast Joely Richardson) emerges as the most baffling character. Stuck in a thinly written supporting role, her motivations seem to bend and twist to the point that it’s hard to understand why she’s there at all. Is she going to bring down Constance and Oliver? Is she going to save them? Why would this woman be at all involved with this romance? Given that important machinations hinge on her actions, the finicky role detracts from other, bigger emotional swings.
Magee’s script takes other liberties, including a final sequence that (no spoilers here) wants to offer a more definitive ending than the one that concluded Lawrence’s novel, which closes with a letter from Oliver to Constance that dares dream of a future for them, the end. The new one is stirring, lush, lavish, and tense — a wonder — but de Clermont-Tonnerre makes the startling choice to overextend it for one final, over-the-top scene. It diminishes the power of the vision she crafted and made her own, putting a button on a story that, frankly, is always better unbuttoned.
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” premiered at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. Netflix will release the film in select theaters and on its streaming platform in December.