What’s the point of another screen adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover? DH Lawrence’s novel about an upper-class woman who falls in love (and in lust) with her husband’s game-keeper was adapted for BBC television in 2015. It was also adapted for BBC television in 1993. Netflix couldn’t wait another 22 years so we have another version, this time a film rather than a TV show.
Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (her acclaimed debut The Mustang came out in 2019), the film is largely faithful to the events of the novel. It islargely set in Wragby Hall, the East Midlands country estate of Sir Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), an aristocratic writer and a veteran of World War I. Sir Clifford was paralysed from the hip down during the war, and this renders him sexually impotent.
The film diverges from the novel by making Sir Clifford eagerly encourage his young wife, Connie, played by The Crown’s Emma Corrin, to have an affair with another man – so she can have a child Sir Clifford can claim as his own, providing him with an heir. (Connie’s disappointing affair with an Irish playwright called Michaelis is non-existent in this film).
The hitch to Sir Clifford’s plan is his game-keeper: the handsome and sensitive Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell). Connie is fascinated by Mellors, and she likes to wander down to his cottage. She soon discovers he enjoys modernist fiction: she finds a copy of a James Joyce novel in his living room, and she later lends him her copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out. They also enjoy having sex in his cottage and in the woods. Sometimes rough sex. (There’s a lot of sex in this film.)
Clifford, however, meant for Connie to have an affair with the right sort of man, then return as a dutiful wife. Mellors is not the right sort (he speaks in a thick dialect and swears a lot), and Connie is getting a bit too attached to him. Will Connie risk family and social scandal to pursue romantic love?
And yet there is almost no genuine tension in this film. It is very tasteful and nice. It is shot throughout with a pale blue brightness. There are tender voice-overs. There is even a scene of Connie and Mellors dancing naked in the rain. At times, the scenery looks more like a Swedish resort ad from the 1960s than a drama of interwar England.
This adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not terrible; it is too polished for that. But there is nothing at stake. The affair between Connie and Mellors, for instance, happens so swiftly that there is no convincing erotic build-up to it. One minute she’s crying in his cottage about her bland life, the next they are shagging on the floor. The scenes of rage and love leave no aftershock. Mellors and Connie fight but quickly make up, and their confession of love is hollow. Corrin’s performance as Princess Diana was more enigmatic and compelling than as Connie Chatterley; O’Connell is bland as Mellors.
Many of us are already familiar with the plot, and this screenplay by David Magee (who wrote Mary Poppins Returns and the 2012 film of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi) adds nothing interesting to it. Clifford is a pathetic and pompous control freak. Connie is a sexually empowered woman. Mellors is mysterious and poetic and has a beard. There is a hint here and there of political unrest: Clifford is a landowner and the miners on his estate are campaigning for better working conditions. All of this is subordinated to the formulaic romance of Connie and Mellors.
Lawrence’s novel, by contrast, is dark and brutal. The haunting memory of the First World War is evident in the first lines of the book: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes.”
It was also banned for obscenity. The Chatterley trial was a touchstone of the sexual revolution. As Philip Larkin famously put it in “Annus Mirabilis”: “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.”
All that transgression is gone in this adaptation. But we shouldn’t judge a film by looking at the origin of its narrative. We should judge it on its own terms. Very well then: the Netflix version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is pointless.
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince