If you are of a certain age, there’s a possibility you have a special connection to Lady Chatterley’s Lover. No, not the book that was written by D.H. Lawrence in the late 1920s, but remained unavailable until a well-publicized obscenity trial in 1960, but the Skinemax classic from 1981 starring Sylvia Kristel and directed by Just Jaeckin, a follow-up to their classic Emmanuelle. This film had a tendency to air way past midnight, when an adventuresome adolescent could perhaps sneak to the guest room, keep the volume super low, and catch a glimpse at some criticism of the British class system of the interwar period!
No, no, this was not actually the draw. The draw, of course, was prurience with a capital P, but unlike other soft-core period pieces (and there were many!) there was at least an attempt made to tell some kind of story with this one. (The same can not be said for the ribald sequels Young Lady Chatterley or, especially, Young Lady Chatterley II, co-starring Adam West.)
It goes like this. The young Constance Reid (Emma Corrin) marries well, to Sir Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), Baronet and heir to Wragby, an enormous estate near a mining village. The day after his wedding ceremony (and wedding night), he goes off to fight in the Great War and comes back in a wheelchair. His wounds prevent him from taking any action in the marital bed, which Lady Chatterley isn’t thrilled about, but still seems pleased that her husband is alive at all.
They busy themselves with updates to the manor, but then Clifford, a writer, becomes frustrated with his work, and evolves into something of a jerk. Meanwhile, Connie can’t help but notice that the very friendly and helpful gamekeeper, Oliver (Jack O’Connell) is a stone-cold fox. She probably would never approach him, but Clifford’s desire to have a male heir puts the idea of her shacking up with someone in her head.
While Sir Clifford doesn’t want to know the details, he’s okay with some quiet, mercenary cuckoldry if it means Lady Chatterley should become pregnant. He would also gain face with the villagers, all of whom work for him in some way, because they correctly assume he is unable to perform the sex act. This would prove them wrong, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it?
Clear communication is important in a relationship, but there’s a foul-up. Sir Clifford just assumes his wife understands that the secret father to their child should be someone of good breeding, not some fella who works for a living. (And who is technically married to someone else, but let’s not get into all that.) More problematic is that Lady Chatterley’s rolls in the hay with Oliver aren’t brief, mechanical encounters, they are toe-curling, mind-splitting adventures in carnal ecstasy that drastically reconfigure her day-to-day interests. In addition to that, both she and he “catch feels,” as it were.
This, as I am sure you could imagine, causes some strife.
There have been two more-or-less respectable BBC productions (in 1995 and 2015) since the 1981 Jaeckin picture, but this new one, which debuts on Netflix, tries to go both ways. Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, whose florid name suggests a familiarity with crests and peerage and taking walks on the grounds, it’s a lovely production with spectacular cinematography and production design. Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography has a gauzy, light blue sheen that pairs well with the many rainy sequences and occasional bursts of color from a red dress or collection of yellow flowers. The interiors, from the lovers’ gardening hut to the William Morris wallpaper in Lady Chatterley’s private bedroom, are finely detailed, proving that this is not a quickie operation.
But let’s face it, a lot of this is just smut. They schtup facing one way, then they schtup facing the other way. They schtup in the grass, they schtup on the floor. For a minute I thought poor Emma Corrin’s head was gonna bang against the wood so hard there’d be an injury. While witnessing the physical act of love on screen can sometimes transcend into something with great depth, this is, sorry to say, not one of those cases. It’s just a lot of huffing and puffing. Clermont-Tonnerre’s signature move, it seems, is to shoot her lead with a top on and no bottom—the Daisy Duck, it’s sometimes called, and it’s rare to see so much of it in an otherwise classy production. For that, I suppose, it deserves a salute.
As things wrap up, there’s an attempt to cram in some talk of worker’s rights and the inhumane attitudes of the obscenely rich, but this is far from Peterloo. There are also occasional eye-roll moments from modern touches in the script, like Lady Chatterley, early in the film, saying Sir Clifford “makes me feel safe.” I checked a PDF of the book, and that dialogue is nowhere in there. And then I kept reading because that D.H. Lawrence sure was a randy gentleman. This story, perhaps just by virtue of its notoriety, does tend to hold one’s attention.