Because we are acutely aware of the un-bliss and infidelity to come, the starry-eyed wedding vows at the start of the latest “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” — premiering at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival — seem both aching and mischievous to us. Happily ever after? Not so fast.
But they certainly mean something sacred to Lady Constance Chatterley, played spiritedly by Emma Corrin (Princess Diana of “The Crown”) in a performance of feathery grace. With her young head in the clouds and heart fluttering with romance, completely unaware of the type of tale she’s leading, you can see in her glowingly lit face that she means every blissful word of her matrimonial pledge to Lord Clifford (Matthew Duckett), a square nobleman soon to be shipped back to the Great War. Her exuberance is matched only by Isabella Summers’ light-headed, classically beautiful score of high-pitched piano keys, just as plucky as Connie is.
But being ahead of Connie in this ethereal, airily shot screen version of D.H. Lawrence’s famously groundbreaking and once scandalous Edwardian-era novel, one that spun several adaptations across cinema, TV and stage, doesn’t matter so much. So what if you know almost all the weighty turns that would lead Lady Chatterley out of airless boredom and emotional ill-treatment and into the arms of her estate’s exciting gamekeeper? What matters is the elegance in which director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and screenwriter David Magee (“Mary Poppins Returns”) get her there, through director of photography Benoît Delhomme’s gleaming lens honoring her perspective with a keen sense of affection and confidence. It’s as if Constance herself is the narrator here. (Even though she technically isn’t.)
In that regard, there is both loyalty and freshness in this take for those who are already deeply familiar with Lawrence’s book. And to those who aren’t: you are in for a handsome introduction to this feminine saga of sexual awakening, laced with both something old and something new, and plenty of frank, tastefully choreographed and actually steamy eroticism dearly missed in today’s increasingly sterile mainstream cinema.
First, it’s perhaps worth unpacking the above-mentioned and overused phrase “sexual awakening” a little, an expression so worn-out that its meaning — at its core, a process of learning and connecting to one’s own body and mind, erotically and otherwise — feels a little lost. In Connie’s case, it would also mean comprehending and articulating her wants and needs truthfully, and maybe even revising her own definition of pleasure and happiness as a result.
Connie’s journey starts after Clifford comes back from the war in mere months as a veteran, paralyzed from the hips down. She tends to the man she loves devotedly at first in the stony confines of Wragby Hall, Clifford’s family’s imposingly Downton-esque countryside estate they move into with a sizable slate of new staff, the understated Jack O’Connell’s gamekeeper Mellors among them. But as her nuptial dreams fade, Connie grows increasingly restless and exhausted, with Clifford abusing her goodwill and depending on her for everything.
Amid her nonstop tasks ranging from assisting with her husband’s literary aspirations as a writer, to cleaning up and dressing him, Connie tries to carve out an agreeable life for herself, unsuccessfully. Writing to her no-nonsense sister Hilda (Faye Marsay, terrific) often, she admits to missing her life in London and to finding refuge in daily nature walks.
The unspoken component of course is the absence of a healthy sex life that Connie’s eager body longs for. Dexterously, Clermont-Tonnerre hints at this hunger even before Clifford goes back to the battlefield. Early on, we peek into their bedroom to find him in a buttoned up pajama set. The sex that presumably follows isn’t on the screen, but enough is there to suggest a mechanical routine between the marital bedsheets that would fall short of Connie’s yearning. It is no surprise then when the James Joyce–reading, nature-loving Mellors grabs Connie’s attention, representing a shade of masculinity, both rugged and tender, that catches Connie off-guard.
Clermont-Tonnerre and Magee take their time to build the sexual tension between the two lovers until their trysts in a remote cabin on Wragby’s boundless grounds become a regular refuge for the two. By his side, Connie discovers she doesn’t want to be a Lady, a title she resents. Often draped over each other like a pair of gorgeous statues, O’Donnell and Corrin strike palpable chemistry throughout, selling both their desire for one another and the consequent love born out of it believably.
Meanwhile, Clifford grows increasingly arrogant in a “ruling class” demeanor that Connie despises. In fact, his domineering behavior gets so out of hand that he soon demands Connie to pursue pregnancy — discreetly, of course — with a different man of good stock, and then spreading the rumor that the baby is Clifford’s. Naturally, the vision in which he sees his wife merely as a breeding vessel doesn’t go according to plan, with different kind of rumors spreading across town. Sadly, Clermont-Tonnerre loses her previously patient momentum a little in these segments, which she tries to construct a little too tidily. In that regard, the film’s march to its final chapter that untangles the thorny affairs feels rushed, while its engagement with class conflicts and mineworker protests that erupt outside of Wragby beg for more depth.
Luckily, Summers’ score fills in for those gaps through renewed musical cues grandly intensifying with modern atonal touches and chromatic swells. And Clermont-Tonnerre sharpens her handle elsewhere, shrewdly and sensually honoring Connie’s longing gaze and moments of immense post-coital pleasure, with an organic eye for nature that often plays host to the lovers’ forbidden rendezvous. The psychological and pastoral sensitivity at the heart of Clermont-Tonnerre’s quiet epic “The Mustang” very much charges “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” too, with elements like mud, mist and rain coating Connie and Mellors’ naked bodies with a freeing sense of ecstasy.
That romancing of freedom is echoed at every stitch and flare of the film’s lovely costumes by Emma Fryer (Hulu’s “The Great”), with floral prints, delicate laces and easy fabrics adding up to a wardrobe both sensual and soothing. It’s reverberated at this version’s generous ending too, one that can’t help but recognize the kind of future these characters richly deserve.
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” premieres on Netflix in December.