The movie opens with several touches of visual cleverness. Connie (Emma Corrin) and Clifford (Matthew Duckett) standing against a fake landscape that is revealed to be the painted backdrop of their wedding portrait. (A metaphor for the awkward pretense their marriage will become?) The couple then attend an awkward wedding reception where Connie’s role of heir-producer is toasted. They then manage to consummate their wedding vows in spite of Clifford’s apprehension about going off to war. (Said consummation was not shown, but I assumed it was dignified and restrained.) The following morning on his trip to the front, Clifford is framed by the window of his train car, where his expression mirrors the horrors reflected in the window.
Several months later, Clifford returns home an invalid, bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He takes over the family estate of Wragby and claims the downstairs library for his bedroom, where his father purportedly died of chagrin. (Oh Clifford, fate has something in store for you.) On their first evening together since his return, Connie tries to get Clifford to engage her physically, but since he can no longer experience pleasure, he resists the idea of addressing her needs.
Unable to be “a man” with Connie, Clifford decides to become a novelist. (I formally accuse the movie of making a joke about the link between impotence and literary endeavors.) Unfortunately, his novel receives poor reviews over its vapidity and Clifford once again confronts a life of privilege without meaning. Connie’s life has been reduced to manual labor and ennui. She wanders the beautiful countryside surrounding the estate and strikes a friendship with one of the locals, but her primary responsibility of producing an heir is no longer possible. Fittingly, her life alternates between feelings of boredom and exhaustion.
Fortunately, her sister Hilda visits and rescues Connie from her husband’s growing nihilism. Hilda insists on Clifford hiring a nursemaid, an idea that Clifford initially resists but realizes makes perfect sense. Hilda has a strong sense of irony because and insists he hire his childhood caregiver, Mrs. Bolten (Joely Richardson).
One day, Clifford has Connie push his wheelchair up to a beautiful spot with a tree and a clear view of the entire estate. He tells Connie that if they had a child, it would mean that Wragby would have an heir and she would have someone to dote on besides him. He tells her that she can take a lover and get pregnant, provided that she follow these simple rules:
- the man must not be below her station
- nobody must never know who the man is
- she mustn’t fall in love with whomever she chooses
Naturally, all three rules will be broken before everything’s said and done. If you know of the novel upon which this movie is based, you probably already know that the lover in question takes the form of the estate’s gameskeeper, Oliver (Jack O’Connell). Like Clifford, he returned from the war to face existential disappointment. Oliver wasn’t physically injured, but learned his wife cuckolded him several times over while he was away. (There is some irony in how Clifford asks his wife to cuckold him, but not with the lowly gameskeeper, who himself was cuckolded.)
After Connie surreptitiously arranges a few preliminary meetings with Oliver, ostensibly to talk about pheasants, the two engage in some ardent rumpy-pumpy like nobody’s business. This made me curious as to how the super-skinny Corrin did not wind up with numerous bruises from having sex on wooden floors, tables and in meadows.
Even if you’ve never read the novel before, you likely know where this story is going. The unfortunate reality of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is that what was shocking in its day (the graphic sex, the acknowledgement of female pleasure) has been mainstream for a long time. Also, the plot device of a rich person canoodling with another person far below their station is incredibly commonplace (hello, Downton Abbey). Additionally, the movie’s frequent sex scenes, while featuring plenty of graphic nudity, failed to generate any heat. For a story predicated on the erotic and the forbidden, the lovemaking feels more observed than felt. Finally, the story’s subplot about striking miners, is curiously abandoned. It’s a glaringly half-hearted attempt to inject respectability into the proceedings.
Even with Chatterley’s odd shortcomings (no pun intended), I’m entirely on the fence about it. It’s an incredibly well made film, somewhat of a given with period-pieces like these but appreciated by me nonetheless. Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography is exceptional, bringing a painterly eye to every scene. The movie also features an exceptional turn by Corrin and a fine supporting performance by Duckett. Chatterley is of two minds, trying to mix the highbrow and the low, while maintaining a frustratingly cerebral distance from it all. Even still, the movie lingers. Toss-up.
Before delving into my analysis of the film, I must sheepishly admit that I’ve never read the novel upon which it is based. I’ve actually avoided it, in spite of my love of classic English literature. This is nothing against D.H. Lawrence in particular. I’ve spent my adult life choosing not to read books filled with “purple prose”. This could be due to my generally conservative approach to life. Or maybe it’s my fear (and guilt and shame) of being caught reading a book like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and having the other person say something like, “You must really be enjoying that book, if you know what I mean!” Or, “That book is very exciting, right?” (Thank you, Catholic upbringing.) Whatever the case may be, I won’t be able to highlight parts of the book that were changed for the movie and speculate as to why. All I can do is discuss the movie itself, which is as it should be.
Chatterley (the movie) cannot help but be preceded by its reputation. Privately published in 1930 it was banned from mass publication for thirty years. The book famously not only described sex with graphic language, but also focused on sexual desire from a woman’s perspective. Then, in 1960, the tide turned and everyone was free to purchase and read the story of Connie and how she chose love (and sex) over a comfortable (but sexless) life as an English Lady.
In the decades since, the novel has been adapted into three films, notably the 1981 soft-core version featuring Sylvia Kristal. The incendiary hook of the story, where a woman of privilege has an affair with a man below her station, is so mainstream that has been used as the plotline for numerous movies and television shows, most recently in Downton Abbey. All of this is a long way of saying that what Chatterley (the book) is about is no longer new or fresh, but mainstream. I would guess that the novel’s focus on a woman’s desire for sexual gratification felt revolutionary in the Sixties. In the decades since, however, society has evolved from recognizing the validity of a woman’s need for pleasure to the outright commercialization of it.
Fans of the novel will likely be delighted to hear that Chatterley contains several sex scenes with graphic nudity. (A movie that purports to be an adaptation of the novel that didn’t contain any would definitely be a subversive undertaking.) Unfortunately, none of the sex scenes felt remotely erotic. Instead of losing myself to the wild and forbidden nature of Connie and Oliver’s frequent coupling, I felt like I was instead being asked to bear witness to their every thrust and moan.
I understand that Chatterley is about more than just a celebration of Connie’s freedom to explore her own carnality. Her risking (and eventually losing) everything to satisfy her lust is also an act of rebellion against the aristocracy, represented by her impotent husband Clifford. However, I felt like her acts of transgression should have made more of an impact on me than they did. I’m glad that Connie took the opportunity to “scratch her itch”. The movie, however, didn’t let me connect with her liberation on an emotional level. Instead, Chatterley asks me to observe and then genuflect when the muscle contractions have ceased.
Part of the problem is that Chatterley wants to have it both ways. It wants to engage the mind as well the groin, but it doesn’t succeed with either. I was entirely sympathetic to Connie’s plight. She’s a beautiful, vivacious young woman who is being asked to devote the rest of her life to take care of her husband. Sure, this is what is meant by “in sickness and in health”. I would guess that most people never actually consider that possibility when they say their vows to each other. For his part, Clifford does admit how his inability to satisfy this aspect of their marriage and says that he’ll look the other way, provided that the “mechanical aspect of sex” results in an heir.
This setup implies that Connie would use her husband’s tacit approval to explore her sexuality vis-a-vis several men. An Irish playwright in his husband’s circle of friends makes an obvious play for her, but Clifford dislikes the forwardness of the overture and scratches him off of the guest list. Amazingly, Connie settles on the only other man she knows, Oliver.
In the movie, Oliver is just a bland character. I never believed that Connie would give up everything to be with him. When Connie meets him, he lives in a cabin with only his dog Flossie for company. He reads James Joyce, but we never hear him say whether he likes his work or not. (Connie leaves behind a copy of Virginia Wolff’s The Voyage Out, another example of narrative shorthand in lieu of character development.) As portrayed by Jack O’Connell, Oliver is a man of modest physical appearance and limited conversation skills. I’m sure Connie felt sympathy towards Oliver after learning his backstory, but I failed to see why Connie would settle on him outside of pure convenience. (He’s just a short walk away, after all.)
Perhaps Connie’s decision to hook up with Oliver is clearer in the book. It may also be true that the point of the book is that whomever Connie had an affair with was far less important than the graphic detailing of her exploits. Whatever the case may be, the sex on screen fails to ignite, no matter how furiously the muscles of the participants are working, because the pairing of the two never works at the cerebral level the movie insists on operating in.
I’ll get into a lot of trouble by saying this, but I found Emma Corrin’s physical appearance to be a distraction during the lovemaking scenes. Her gaunt body was used to great effect in The Crown, where it directly correlated to Lady Diana’s bulimia. In Chatterley, no matter what level of passion on display, I kept thinking how Corrin is borderline anorexic. Corrin is a beautiful woman, and how she decides to live her life is up to her. Still, in a movie like this, I couldn’t help but stare at the bones of her spine poking through her skin and how thin her arms and legs are. Realistically, Corrin’s Connie is just one bad cough away from dying of a horrible illness. (The only time I agreed with anything Clifford said in the movie was when he told her, “You should eat something. You’re wasting away.”)
I suspect that Chatterley used Corrin’s incredibly lean physique to represent how she is resisting becoming a consumer like her husband. No longer able to define his life as a husband or father, Clifford has settled on becoming the thing he wasn’t keen on before leaving for the war, a robber baron. He tells others that his takeover of the nearby mine is a noble act, but in doing so he becomes a consumer of resources: natural, financial and the labor of men. Connie’s starvation flies directly in the face of her husband’s actions, but this overtly political line of thinking was at odds with the story’s theme of sexual awakening. (The movie also makes overtures to striking miners, but only pays lip service to their cause.)
Speaking of Clifford, he is the most interesting character in the movie. Trust me, the irony of saying this about a movie where you can wear out your calculator tallying up the number pelvic thrusts isn’t lost on me. Regardless, Clifford’s transformation from timid soldier to motorized wheelchair riding robber baron was incredible for showing how a person who has experienced tragedy can become a villain. His failed attempt at giving his life meaning through writing was sharply comical, and could easily have served as the basis for an entirely different movie. The closing remark in the review of his debut novel, “A wonderful display of nothingness,” was priceless. I wish the movie had expanded on its critique of pseudo-intellectualism, as there are no end of jokes to be made about the connection between writing and impotency.
Matthew Duckett deserves much credit for making Clifford’s arc believable and almost sympathetic. His sexless turn towards societal exploitation serves as an interesting counterpoint to Connie’s sexual awakening. I just wish the movie had done more with the character besides making him a sniveling vindictive man. A much more interesting choice would have been for Clifford to casually give Connie a divorce and for him to go off and build armaments.
Another interesting supporting character I wished the movie had more time for was Connie’s sister Hilda. As played by Faye Marsay, she starts out as Connie’s older sister and confidant, a bit direct but otherwise feminine. By the time Connie is suffering a meltdown over her marriage, Hilda has become decidedly masculine, driving a car dressed in a mechanic’s uniform. The way she directly confronts and convinces Clifford into hiring a full-time caregiver suggests that she has assumed the role of the husband in their marriage. Hilda apparently symbolizes the transformation of women from those who are either pampered wives or servants into members of the workforce in traditionally male fields. Unfortunately, Hilda’s striking transformation doesn’t have the space to yield fruit within the narrative.
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s direction is best when focusing on the interpersonal relationships between the characters, less so with the strangely distant sex scenes. She teases noteworthy performances from Corrin and Duckett, and brings a notable claustrophobic air to happenings at Wragby. While the craftsmanship and attention to detail are in every scene, the movie’s overall impact is muddled at best. Revisiting a very familiar work like Chatterley requires the filmmakers to present the material in a fresh, original way. I’m still at a loss as to why LdCT completely abandoned the clever visual styling on display in the first ten minutes of the movie. Even still, the story needed a less dutiful approach and something along the lines of Gretta Gerwig’s Little Women or Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. Even Carrie Cracknell’s unfairly derided Persuasion is a much more entertaining movie than Chatterley. Not all of Cracknell’s bold decisions work, but they do result in an experience that feels new and fun.
In addition to the expert direction and cinematography, the movie contains an exquisite score by Isabella Summers. Its chamber-influenced score perfectly accentuates Connie’s current mood in the story, shifting from melancholy to horrific to joyful. There was even a surprising moment at the midpoint of the movie when the score was accompanied by electric bass and guitar.
In the end, when Mrs. Bolton tells her fellow washer-women that the story of Connie and Oliver is a love story, I wasn’t convinced. Yes, Connie’s actions show her undying love towards Oliver, but the movie never made the case for why he was worth giving up everything for. Because he was that great as a lover? And what of the subplot of Clifford’s abuse of mining workers, or the abuse of mining workers in general? I don’t mind that Chatterley wants to be more than just a series of sex scenes, but to pretend at being more consequential is not an achievement unless you follow-through with your highbrow ambitions.
Chatterley is a movie that is at odds with itself. There’s the graphic essence of the source material, which the movie portrays with abandon but also out of duty. Then there’s the rest of the movie (Clifford, Hilda, the failing mine, Mrs. Bolton, the striking miners, etc.) which the filmmakers seem much more interested in exploring. Chatterley wants to break free and do something new, but its obligations force it back to a very familiar reality.