Lady Chatterley's Lover Is a Sweet Love Story, But Deserves More Scandalous Sex

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<i>Lady Chatterley's Lover</i> Is a Sweet Love Story, But Deserves More Scandalous Sex

In 1960, Penguin Books was put on trial for its publication of D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The prosecution accused the book of obscenity, referring, in particular, to its numerous, exhaustively descriptive sex scenes. It’s a piece of literary history that many are at least partially aware of. But while people tend to focus on the scandalous words on the page, one of the most important elements of Chatterley’s past is that Penguin was found not guilty because, in large part, the courts deemed the novel’s sex scenes as entirely necessary. Chatterley’s is not a book about sex. Instead, it uses sex as a method to describe a deeply powerful love. When the novel’s protagonist, Connie, describes sleeping with her lover as a “poignant, marvelous death,” for example, this “death” of course does not refer to the act of intercourse itself. No, it is Connie’s love for gamekeeper Oliver Mellors that makes sex feel like an act that holds life and death in the palm of its hand.

Given this, there is naturally a great deal of pressure that comes with adapting Chatterley’s. After all, how can one do justice to sex scenes that literally got the law involved? But French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre was willing to take on the challenge, adapting the controversial novel for Netflix with a screenplay from Finding Neverland writer David Magee. Lady Chatterley’s Lover follows Connie Reed (Emma Corrin), a young newlywed whose baronet husband, Sir Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), recently sustained wartime injuries that left him medically impotent. Still hoping for an heir, Clifford encourages Connie to have an extramarital affair without catching feelings. But it turns out that that last clause is a bit of a tough ask when your gamekeeper is the ruggedly handsome, coolly disaffected Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell).

As in Lawrence’s novel, Connie and Oliver’s love affair is the beating heart of Clermont-Tonnerre’s film. For its first quarter, the two engage in a delightful, agonizing will-they-won’t-they dance, with Connie’s marital loneliness and craving for partnership drawing her desperately to Oliver, and Oliver’s nonchalance compelling any sane viewer to will Connie to win him over even more. When Connie and Oliver finally consummate their relationship on the floor of the gamekeeper’s hut, it’s hard to not want to let out a little cheer.

The film’s first sex scene admittedly plays as clumsy and awkward, with Oliver not quite knowing where to look and Connie not quite knowing how to react. And at first, this direction is a wise decision. The pair’s mismatched body language is fitting with their situation: Oliver is sleeping with his boss’s wife and Connie is having an affair, particularly naughty things to do in the 1920s.

The problem is the two never quite sync up. Even in what is perhaps the most erotic, romantic scene of the whole film, they hardly meet one another’s eyes, and their movements don’t match. How, then, are we supposed to believe that this is a love worth abandoning all for?

Even the camera doesn’t quite seem to know what to focus on during this pivotal scene; it appears to constantly change its mind about where to go next. This is particularly frustrating because Benoît Delhomme’s camerawork remains largely intentional throughout the film, with lovers frequently bathed in a melancholy light, fights between Connie and Clifford taking place in protracted, lingering, disquieting tracking shots, and close-ups saved for only the fiercest of emotional high-points.

It would be easier to forgive the awkward, efficient sex scenes were Connie and Oliver’s relationship developed a little further. But the two aren’t given much commonality to cling onto, which makes a deft tale of love in the time of class disparity veer dangerously into one about two people who have a hard time thinking of anything to talk to each other about.

It doesn’t help that Oliver is reduced to a stereotypical hard-working salt-of-the-earth fella who’s had his heart broke in the past. Between this and the abrasive soundtrack (better suited for a Star Wars trailer), it’s hard not to feel like we’re being clobbered on the head with themes of class and classic gender roles.

To its credit, Chatterley’s heroine is wonderfully complex: At once unabashedly naïve and strikingly thoughtful, selfish and loyal, a culmination of women’s struggles that makes her appear completely ahead of her time. Corrin brings a good deal to the character, as well, imbuing Connie with a vitalizing sense of clumsiness, as well as a physical and emotional agency that isn’t as present in the novel.

At face value, Lady Chatterley’s Lover works well enough as a love story: It’s sweet, moderately sexy and sticks pretty religiously to Lawrence’s compelling story. But for a film based on a book that scandalized thousands, it will undoubtedly leave its viewer wanting more.

Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Writers: David Magee
Stars: Emma Corrin, Jack O’Connell, Matthew Duckett, Joely Richardson, Ella Hunt, Faye Marsay
Release Date: December 2, 2022 (Netflix)

Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.