Lady Chatterley's Lover (United Kingdom/United States, 2022)

November 29, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Lady Chatterley's Lover Poster

The nature of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, lends itself equally to high-brow adaptations and soft-core porn. The best-known example of the latter was a 1981 production starring Sylvia “Emmanuelle” Kristel. Those looking for the former can go to the 1993 mini-series starring Joely Richardson and Sean Bean or the 2015 TV movie which featured no nudity! This latest iteration, which resides on Netflix, attempts to split the difference. It opts for a narrative-first approach but doesn’t skimp on the sex and nudity. It falls short of a modern definition of “porn,” however, since the only full-frontal moments occur when the two characters are frolicking naked outside in the rain. (Hence the “R” rating instead of an “NC-17.”)

The film feels like a Masterpiece Theater production with a little “spice” added to the mix (although, to be fair, Masterpiece Theater was known for showing nudity during the 1970s and 1980s). It’s a frothy period romance that tells the familiar story of an aristocratic woman trapped in a loveless marriage who finds love (and lust) with a man of a lower class. Although the movie loses some of the book’s nuances about changing sexual and cultural mores in post-World War I England, it retains enough to enhance the subtext. One could make the argument that this is more than an illicit love story, although that might be disingenuous since no one is going to see Lady Chatterley’s Lover for reasons other than to watch prim Lady Constance (Emma Corrin) fall passionately in love with hunky gamekeeper Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell) and engage in activities with him that would have been deemed shocking and scandalous a century ago.

The movie’s early scenes introduce Constance and her husband, Clifford (Matthew Duckett), whose attachment, especially following his war injury (which leaves him paralyzed from the waist down and unable to sire children), is more intellectual than physical. Clifford appears both uninterested and unwilling to acknowledge or satisfy his wife’s desires. What’s more, he proposes that she take a lover so she can have a child who will inherit the Chatterley name. His expectations are that anyone Constance chooses for that task will be of suitable breeding and their dalliances will be strictly for the purposes of procreation. Passion and pleasure? Certainly not!

It's perhaps inevitable that the perpetually frustrated Connie falls for Oliver, who wanders the estate with gun cocked and ready. Her attempts at seduction aren’t subtle and his resistance is token at best. At first, they are driven by lust and (at least on her part) curiosity but a strong emotional bond develops. Once Connie becomes pregnant and the couple faces the realities of their circumstances, they recognize that, if they are going to be together, a difficult road beckons. This is underscored by the appalled reaction of Connie’s sister, Hilda (Faye Marsay), to the match. The only one who appears to be sympathetic is Mrs. Bolton (Joely Richardson), Clifford’s nurse.

Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who made her feature debut with 2019’s extraordinary The Mustang, brings a welcome female perspective to the material, which has often been characterized by the typical “male gaze.” David Magee’s screenplay, although sticking mostly to the novel’s structure, softens some of Oliver’s edges and makes his language less rough. The playful naming of “Lady Jane” and “John Thomas” for their genitals has been eliminated, possibly because the filmmakers felt it might seem childish to modern audiences.

The acting from the three leads is fine. Emma Corrin, best-known for portraying Diana in one of the seasons of The Crown, readily connects with Connie’s sexual side. Jack O’Connell’s Oliver is easy on the eyes and his simplified character represents the perfect solution to Connie’s problems. Matthew Duckett tries vainly to generate some sympathy for Clifford (although without much success). Joely Richardson, who played Connie in the 1993 mini-series, keeps her clothing on this time around as Mrs. Bolton. On more than one occasion, the actors are overshadowed by Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography, which uses blue filters to lend an ethereal tinge to the English countryside.

Unlike some adaptations of classic novels, this one doesn’t feel like a chore to sit through. It’s crisply paced and, although there are times when Lady Chatterley’s Lover seems like little more than an intellectually-approved bodice-ripper, it’s an impressively mounted production that looks good and is emotionally true to the characters and their era. Fortunately, Netflix has done considerably better with this classic novel than their previous attempt, Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Lady Chatterley's Lover (United Kingdom/United States, 2022)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2022-12-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: Drama/Romance
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1