Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Stars: Emma Corrin, Matthew Duckett, Jack O’Connell
While D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first published privately in 1928, it wasn’t until the beginning of the ’60s that it became both widely available and notorious for its supposed ‘obscenity’. The frank sexuality that serves as the subject of Lawrence’s erotic classic whipped up a furore, and one wonders whether this was due, in part, to how Lawrence applied such erogenous enquiry to one of the more staid literary environs; the well-to-do English gentry. One only has to pry cursively at the works of Austin or Brontë (to name but a couple) to find evidence of the erotic in the great literary works of days passed, but where others inferred, Lawrence approached the subject directly. It was, in a real sense, a watershed moment.
How does one replicate such sensationalism in our modern era? Is it even possible, or even the point of Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (whose The Mustang is one of the most sorely underseen films of recent years) takes to the task of her new adaptation without a sense of the lurid. Her evocation of the English countryside in the winter years of the Great War appears frosty; the colour palette drained and sparse. At breakfast with her convalescing husband Clifford (Matthew Duckett), our Lady Constance ‘Connie’ Chatterley (Emma Corrin) appears to hug herself from the cold. It’s a posture that evokes the chill that has fallen in their marriage since Clifford returned from the front paralysed from the neck down.
Clifford frankly expresses the desire for an heir regardless of his inabilities, and it is with this tacit permission in the back pocket that Connie turns to working class gamekeeper Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell) for emotional and physical intimacy.
Working in tandem with Finding Neverland screenwriter David Magee, de Clermont-Tonnerre succeeds in framing the story through the lens of Connie’s unsatisfied sexuality. When we’re invited to watch as she masturbates privately, it feels like an invasion of privacy, but it is also among the first instances that the film feels in any way warm. Thus we’re urge to associate Connie’s gratification with the film’s visual thawing.
Not for nothing, the next time Connie sees Oliver, he places her before his modest fireplace so that she can warm herself. Their urgent first coupling may take place in the same cold hues of blue, but the soundtrack crackles with the spit of the nearby fireplace and, afterward, Oliver steps from his cabin to a frosted ground steaming from the first flushes of morning sun. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is warming up. The next day, we have, for the first time it seems, yellows in the picture. While their subsequent expletive-strewn encounter – resplendent with Lawrence’s so-shocking F-bombs – takes place in a sea of verdant greens. Here, sex = colour and colour = life.
Connie’s sexual attraction to Oliver finds sonic counterpart in Isabella Summers’ string-laden score, which veritably quivers at the thought of him. When the two are separated, either by circumstance or geography, we’re held prisoner of pensive acoustic guitars or skeletal piano.
Corrin keeps Connie’s emotions fluttering on the surface, as fragile as the chicks she cradles in the henhouse with Oliver’s assistance. On occasion their performance verges on hysteria, which only furthers a sense of urgent need. Thus, de Clermont-Tonnerre builds toward a torrid, graphically sexual love affair sourced from it’s female protagonist’s hungry gaze. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a modern book, ahead of its time for its expression of feminine desire. While de Clermont-Tonnerre can’t hope for a response as culturally revelatory, her film is faithful to this spirit and in its finest flourishes brings to mind such cinematic forbearers as Jane Campion’s The Piano and, of course, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (itself a progeny of Lawrence’s novel).
There is of course class tension in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, plenty of it (O’Connell gives good bristle). And commentary on post-war impotence, challenges to masculinity, fidelity etc. But more keenly at its centre there is a hot wetness to this tale. A neediness. And, via these, ultimately, empowerment. These preoccupations are well-served by de Clermont-Tonnerre, whose choices have a subtle modernity that tessellate well with Lawrence’s, without jarring the viewer out of her primly improper hothouse time machine.