Film Review – Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Lady Chatterley's Lover
Stories involving infidelity can be tricky because an audience is sometimes asked to side with the cheaters. People sneaking around having affairs doesn’t automatically draw a rooting interest. There had better be a good reason for a character to do so, otherwise it will be difficult to find empathy for them. It could be that they feel trapped within a social prison, they’re in an unhappy marriage, etc. It could be any one or all those reasons. The Age of Innocence (1993) is one of the best examples of this scenario. It expertly balanced the temptation to follow one’s passions and the rigid class structures holding them at bay. Being able to portray those who are unfaithful as victims of circumstance is not easy to pull off.
Case in point: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (2022). Adapted from the novel by D.H. Lawrence, the film understands the elements of an effective romantic drama, but I’m not so sure it understands the rhythms. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre directs David Magee screenplay with a confident, stylistic flair. And yet, the result feels detached. This is a story of people giving into their desires regardless of wealth or privilege, but it never goes beyond its physical manifestations. People hook up with one another because that is what they are supposed to do. Sure, things get hot and steamy, but is anything there beyond that?
The “Lady” of the title is Constance (Emma Corrin), a young woman from London who has married the wealthy Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett). Early scenes are filled with the excitement of young love, with Connie grinning from ear to ear in her wedding dress. The writing suggests that Clifford has a progressive mind, informing others that their marriage isn’t just about family legacy. When asked about having children, Clifford responds by saying that they should only have them if they wish to do so, not for bearing an heir. Unfortunately, the effects of WWI leave Clifford paralyzed from the waist down, putting the idea of offspring in limbo.
Connie and Clifford move to the Chatterley estate in the countryside, where she meets gamekeeper Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell). With a husband unable to satisfy her sexually, Connie and Oliver jump into each other’s arms for some hanky panky. But sex isn’t really what this is about, is it? It’s about Connie’s blossoming as an independent spirit, about living for herself and refusing to be a subservient part of a loveless marriage. And that’s where the narrative comes apart. Clifford, who we saw earlier as the loving, forward-thinking husband, is now jaded and dismissive of his wife. It’s easy to say that this sudden change is due to his wartime injuries, but the switch is so abrupt that it plays as an excuse rather than a reason. His bitterness and cruelty to Connie isn’t a symptom of his paralysis, but a justifiable cause for her to explore Oliver’s nether regions.
Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell do look good together on screen. The two work the physical chemistry between their characters well. There is a lot of graphic sex here, to the point of repetitiveness. It takes away from their connection on an emotional level. We don’t get much from Oliver’s point of view. He is depicted with a smoldering look that draws Connie’s fascination. But outside of a previous marriage, there isn’t much to him as a person – he’s a bit of a blank slate. We get scenes of them frolicking in the rain, sometimes in the nude, but it’s surface level romance. Who are they and what do they mean for one another? A point of interest is Connie’s investment in a cage of birds Oliver looks after (a heavy-handed metaphor for her own predicament), but then what? Connie and Oliver are faced with the question of what will happen once the honeymoon phase of their courtship subsides, but neither can answer it. Will they end up going through the cycle of unhappiness and infidelity once again?
Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography turns away from traditional, early 20th century love stories. Instead of stately, pristine shots of the manor and surrounding locales, the camera opts for a hand-held approach. The colors are washed out in heavy greens and blues, with such a heavy haze that the lens appears smothered in grease. The visuals are an interesting departure from what we are used to seeing. Romantic movies have historically been filled with reds, oranges, and yellows – signifying the hidden emotions of the characters. Here, the blues and greens have an icier, wetter effect. The style makes sense when signifying the numbness of Connie’s marriage, but her scenes with Oliver are shot in the same way. It’s an odd contrast. Connie’s emerging agency against the status quo works in opposition to the color scheme. The entire time, everyone just looked like they were freezing.
From what I described, Lady Chatterley’s Lover sounds like a disappointment. That is not entirely the case. It is handsomely made, and the performances are well done. This is especially true for Emma Corrin. With this, My Policeman (2022), and the series The Crown, Corrin has shown an interest in stories that challenge long held belief systems. It’s just a shame that this latest effort leaves very little resonance, regardless of how prescient the message might be.