Hands in glove

A sensitive take on D H Lawrence recalls the heyday of French cinema

Lady Chatterley (18) dir: Pascale Ferran
Knocked Up (15) dir: Judd Apatow
Knocked Up (15) dir: Judd Apatow

If you heard there was a candid new French film of Lady Chatterley's Lover, you would suspect the worst, right? But Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley is unlikely to give much satisfaction to either the dirty mac brigade, if such a thing still exists in the internet age, or those dissenters who have wielded the whip in the long-running D H Lawrence backlash. In her search for the novel's essence, or possibly just to avoid adapting all that post-coital chit-chat about class and labour, Ferran has gone back to Lawrence's more understated second draft, John Thomas and Lady Jane (Lady Chatterley's Lover being the third draft), and filmed that instead. The result has all the blasé joy and looseness of the nouvelle vague.

Ferran treats cinema like she invented it, throwing together home-movie footage, hand-held camerawork and out-of-the-blue voice-overs. For all that, her Lady Chatterley is a tranquil work that handles its characters' passions with a quizzical coolness. The plot you know by now: Constance (Marina Hands) is traipsing around the country estate of her paralysed husband, Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), when she happens upon something sweaty in the woodshed - namely the gamekeeper, Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h). The pair begin an awkward affair, which Ferran documents initially with a watchful camera that keeps noticing hands: there's a moment of silent elation when Constance slips her hand into Parkin's weather-beaten gardening glove, and another when the lovers' hands brush against each other as they heave Clifford's wheelchair out of a rut.

Marina Hands is captivating as Constance, particularly in the scenes that show this forlorn, forgotten woman sparking to life again. You haven't seen bliss until you've witnessed her expression when the maid tells her that the daffodils are out early this year. "Daffodils, already?" she chirps, knowing this will necessitate another trip to Parkin's shed, but also seeming genuinely enraptured at the thought of tripping through a copse with armfuls of flowers. Hands has already won a César award for her performance; if Lady Chatterley doesn't herald her transformation into an art-house icon of Anna Karina-esque proportions, I'll eat my weather-beaten gardening gloves.

Lawrence considered calling the novel Tenderness, which would be an equally appropriate title, believe it or not, for the comedy Knocked Up. Alison (Katherine Heigl) has landed a new job as a TV presenter. Ben (Seth Rogen) is a dopehead whose career ambitions amount to collaborating with his housemates on a soft-porn website. Alison has no intention of seeing Ben again after a boozy one-night stand, until she discovers she is pregnant, and begins to wonder what life might be like with a stoned layabout for a partner.

I couldn't understand at first why this sitcom premise was stretched out to two hours. But I think I've rumbled it. With its baggy structure, predictable story arc and tireless running gags, Knocked Up has built-in feel-good appeal; it's like hanging out with a bunch of strangers who can't wait to share their stupid jokes and wacky impressions with you. Even as I was watching the film, I could imagine happily dropping in on it again in a year's time on a hotel or in-flight entertainment channel.

Individual bright spots leave you feeling you've been lightly tickled - I adored the scenes with Alison's employers (Alan Tudyk and Kristen Wiig), who ask her to lose weight without actually asking her to lose weight. And it's no hardship being in the company of the beatific Rogen: the film's unspoken joke is that he strongly resembles a big, curly-haired baby himself, albeit with stubble and a bong. But a comedy about unplanned pregnancy with only the vaguest allusion to abortion and a reliance on gender stereotypes cannot in any way be called modern. However, the innocuous, eager-to-please tone means that Knocked Up is a film at which neither your pro-life grandmother nor your pro-choice sister will take umbrage.

Pick of the week

12:08 East of Bucharest (15)
dir: Corneliu Porumboiu
The fall of Ceausescu is the starting point for this thoughtful, offbeat Romanian drama.

Surf’s Up (PG)
dir: Tom Hunsinger, Neil Hunter
Zesty British rom-com that puts a spring in your step.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide