Well, here’s an odd little surprise. Then again, given how notoriously godawful Netflix is at promoting their own movies, it’s always a surprise to log in and see a noteworthy new arrival on their platform.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (2022) is the latest in a long line of adaptations based on the infamous 1928 novel by D.H. Lawrence. And to the best of my knowledge, this is the very first film adaptation to be directed by a woman: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who recently made her feature directing debut with an arthouse sleeper hit called The Mustang. In the title role is Emma Corrin, a non-binary actor best known for playing Princess Diana in the fourth season of “The Crown”.
All right, I’m intrigued. What have we got?
On the one hand, I’m typically loathe to waste time recapping the plot and premise of a book that really should be common knowledge after a century in print and roughly a dozen adaptations across all media. On the other hand, the book is best known as a work of sexually charged literature and a perennial entry on any list of banned or censored books, so of course mainstream knowledge of the source material will be limited as a direct result. (It’s not exactly a book anyone taught about in high school, we’ll put it that way.) Luckily, the premise is simple enough that I can split the difference and keep it quick.
Constance “Connie” Reid (Corrin) married the wealthy Sir Clifford Chatterley (here played by Matthew Duckett), just before the latter went off to war. Lord Chatterley eventually came back with a war injury that left him paraplegic and sexually impotent. What’s more, the stress of nursing her husband leaves Connie so physically and mentally drained that the Chatterleys solicit the help of the widow Mrs. Bolton to look after Lord Chatterley. (Mrs. Bolton is played by Joely Richardson, who was herself the Lady Chatterley in an ill-received 1993 BBC miniseries adaptation. It’s beyond me how anyone could’ve stretched this novel to miniseries length, but I digress.)
As the Chatterleys’ marriage continues to sour, Connie finds solace in the arms of the estate gamekeeper (Oliver Mellors, here played by Jack O’Connell). They start an extramarital affair and we’re off to the races.
Elsewhere in the supporting cast, we’ve got Connie’s sister Hilda (Faye Marsay), serving as a badly-needed voice of reason and a practical advocate for Connie’s best interests, even and especially when that goes against what Connie wants. I was delighted to see Ella Hunt (Check out Anna and the Apocalypse IMMEDIATELY.) make an appearance as Mrs. Flint, who helpfully provides us with the perspective of the common folk most directly impacted by their landlord Sir Chatterley and his general state of mind.
To address the elephant in the room, the nudity and sexual content are tastefully handled. The sex scenes and nude scenes are well-paced throughout the runtime, the nudity is strategically shot, and the sex is artfully portrayed. This is where it really paid dividends to have a female director and an intimacy coordinator (namely Ita O’Brien, a seasoned veteran of the trade) on set. Most importantly, the sexual content is delivered in a way that doesn’t really feel like pornography, but more like erotica. It all adds to the greater themes of love, passion, affection, human connection, and so on.
Another crucial aspect of this is the contrast between nature and civilization. As the gamekeeper, Oliver is surrounded by English countryside, to say nothing of the animals that fuck and give birth and frolic around naked without anyone to judge them. Animals have no rules or laws to govern their most primal biological urges, nor do they spread vicious gossip about each other, certainly not to the extent that humans do.
Though Connie and Oliver aspire to that level of freedom, and they can enjoy it in the isolated woods away from everyone else, they do have to reckon with the rest of the world sooner or later. The two lovers can’t keep this between them forever, Clifford will certainly leave Oliver homeless and unemployed when he finds out, and where will they be then?
The film never lets us forget that Connie has great cause for shame because she is in fact cheating on her husband. Even better, the filmmakers raise the question of whether Oliver really is her one true forever love, or if she’s risking her entire livelihood on a man she’ll quickly throw aside like she did with Clifford and all her other previous lovers.
In Connie’s defense, the war turned Clifford into a man she did not sign up to marry. She couldn’t have known at the time that he would become a tyrant with no shits to give about his employees — not even those who are literally dying in the coal mine on his property. Connie couldn’t have known that she’d be spending the rest of her life literally carrying around a paraplegic. She couldn’t have known that Clifford’s time on the battlefield wouldn’t just ruin his sexual ability, but drain him of all human compassion. It’s also important to note that Clifford doesn’t start out as an asshole, and the character’s downward arc into corruption is morbidly compelling to watch.
Incidentally, Oliver was also a veteran of the Great War, who fought and lived through many of the same trench warfare horrors that scarred Clifford. The difference is that Clifford internalized that trauma by rationalizing that everyone is expendable and we were all born to die on somebody else’s orders. By comparison, Oliver sought out the peace and quiet of pristine English countryside, isolated from all other people until Connie came along.
Yes, the film dovetails an anti-war statement with an anti-capitalist statement by talking about archvillains so bereft of humanity that they would willingly send other people to die for their own gain. Then the filmmakers (by way of the source material) go a step further and use the notion of rich assholes so hopelessly dead inside that they’re incapable of compassion or basic human connection, thereby dovetailing the class statement with a rationale for a tale of romance and infidelity. And then they go the extra mile to examine love in all its forms, from basic empathy all the way up to sex and childbirth. It’s really quite impressive how much ground the premise covers.
Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that Clifford’s whole worldview hinges on his wealth and power, such that he’s capable of anything without anyone’s help. He is willfully oblivious to the fact that as soon as his wheelchair gets stuck, he needs the hired peasants just to go anywhere. The metaphor is ham-fisted, yes, but it makes a solid point all the same.
In summary, Connie’s got her choice between a cold unfeeling miser stuck in a huge extravagant mansion; and a tender penniless woodsman with a broken heart and a ramshackle hut leased from his employer. Clifford would give Connie anything in the world except for her freedom, which is incidentally pretty much the only thing that Oliver has to offer. Clifford is proof that money can’t buy love, but Oliver is proof that love can’t buy much of anything else either.
Granted, the morality is aggressively blunt and overly simplistic, but that’s mostly due to the source material. To their credit, everyone in the cast and crew does an admirable job trying to make the characters seem like fully developed and nuanced human beings. They don’t always succeed, alas, but it’s a remarkable job with the source material they had to work with.
While I’m overall quite impressed with the direction of the film, it does have one glaring problem that pervades the entire picture: At least two-thirds of the film was color-graded with an ugly-ass blue filter. If the idea was to shoot all the “civilized” stuff with that blue filter so the nature shots and love scenes would look more passionately vibrant, I could respect and understand that, but no. Almost the whole damn film was tinted blue, with no rhyme or reason that I could find for the rare exceptions, and it weighed down the whole film.
Overall, the best compliment I can pay to Lady Chatterley’s Lover (2022) is that it serves as a fine introduction to the book. The actors all turn in solid work, the characters are all fully realized, and the filmmakers do a fantastic job conveying the plot and themes of the book in compelling ways. Couple that with quick and affordable access with a Netflix account and this one’s an easy recommendation.
This story is highly relevant now for the exact same reasons why it was so incendiary back in 1928. If you want a good overview of the reasons why before you charge ahead and read the book for yourselves, this film is a great place to start.