There’s a reason a story like this was banned for obscenity in the 1920s; it doesn’t hold back in its exploration of pleasure (particularly female pleasure), sex, intimacy, but most importantly, being unapologetic about pursuing what brings you joy in life. All these topics are kept in the 1920s setting but updated for a modern audience. There’s a real focus on feminism, bodily autonomy, and the shameless pursuit of all things pleasurable. Connie is a free spirit. She opposes her classist husband’s exploitation of workers and snobbery of them. (I’m sure class in Britain is a much bigger topic in the original novel, but it’s served here as more of an undertone for Connie’s character development.) At first, she is a devoted wife, trying earnestly to meet the high demands of her unaffectionate husband, whose only genuine concern is keeping Connie on the grounds, isolated from her sister, father, and friends. She’s a complex and layered character who isn’t reduced to a “temptress” or villain for cheating on her paralyzed husband.
Now, going into this film, I knew there’d be a lot of sex, but I didn’t expect the sex scenes to be the highlight of the movie. I don’t want to reduce the title to just these scenes, but it really is where the directing and styling of the film shine. O’Connell and Corrin’s body language tells a story from scene to scene. Going from mechanical sex whilst avoiding each other’s eye to reveling in shared intimacy to the all too familiar act of sharing your body with the person you love, these scenes effectively show the stage the couple is at as they fall in love. I’m sure the film used an intimacy coordinator, and it absolutely shows. The sex scenes are incredibly intimate without feeling voyeuristic and the directing in them is undoubtedly better than the rest of the film.
Hollywood seems to forget that intimate scenes deserve the same treatment as others, Joe Wright did this to great effect in that library in Atonement. Lady Chatterley’s Lover takes that even further as it isn’t just a celebration of sex and pleasure, but also one’s body and the autonomy one has over it. This is most apparent in a scene when Connie and Oliver dance in the rain completely naked, more so to revel in how unbounded they feel by the world rather than eroticism. It’s a promising glimpse at how intimacy can be portrayed in media, and how nudity, sex, and especially masturbation do not have to always be clouded with shame, especially for women.
The film is not without its faults, and the most apparent one comes in its directing. Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre had a lot of opportunities to use the breathtaking setting to its full potential – but instead decides to make the actors the central focus. This is a character-heavy film, sure, but if you’re going to shoot at a country estate that boasts acres of beautiful foliage, woods, and greenery, you think you’d give it more of a role than a blurred background. The film is tinged with a greyish palette, making it feel more like a David Fincher thriller than a romantic period drama. The editing is extremely abrupt at times, losing a lot of the narrative flow, and it seems to linger and rush in all the wrong places.
There are shots of actors that are five seconds too long and others that are just completely needless. One can get the impression that post-production was more than slightly rushed, as a little extra editing could have gone a long way. This is most frustrating toward the end of the movie. Without giving away spoilers, a pivotal moment that should have been bursting with emotion and imagery doesn’t land its punch because of an odd editing choice. It robs the ending of any real satisfaction and despite the previous ten minutes building up to this scene, it offers no payoff for the audience. However, as said before, de Clermont-Tonnerre deserves kudos for the sex scenes. They undoubtedly receive the most attention and style, and here the director crafts moments of palpable pleasure and eroticism without ever making it feel like the characters – or the actors – are being exploited for entertainment’s sake.
Even though all the actors turn in wonderful performances, this is Emma Corrin’s film. You may think you won’t be able to watch Corrin and not think of Diana (they played the princess in Season 4 of The Crown), but they show their range and completely make Connie their own. As mentioned, the camera follows them almost too closely, but you could watch Corrin for hours on end. They command the camera in every scene, knowing when to hog it and when to share it. Of course, this film has a lot of sex, and it’s a love story at the end of the day, so the chemistry between O’Connell and Corrin was paramount. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s like lightning between them, but they work together very well and feel at ease with one another. This definitely sees O’Connell at one of his best, as it’s a far departure from the hard, broken young man characters he tends to navigate towards.
Like Connie says of him, he’s unexpectedly tender underneath the gruff, hard exterior – and watching it melt away for Connie only adds to their intimacy. A stellar performance I wasn’t expecting comes from Joely Richardson (whose casting is a nice little nod to the 1993 BBC adaptation in which Richardson played Connie) as Clifford’s nurse. She’s a mirror for grief and love lost, making Connie understand the stakes of her situation. Richardson imbues what could have been an ineffectual character with empathy and kindness that is not often seen in period dramas. It’s a small role but one that greatly adds to the story, being a friend to Connie when she’s at her loneliest and having an understanding of the world that all the other characters seem to lack.
So, a lot of cons and a lot of pros. It’s shaky in its production at times and could have definitely used another month or two in post. But, it has an impressive cast that devotes itself to telling a story that others could have made exploitative or uncomfortable. However, it’s the refreshingly modern and tender depiction of intimacy and pleasure that will stay with me. After years upon years of sex scenes that are steeped in the male gaze or are shoehorned in to attract the money of horny youngsters who have no real interest in the story, it’s about time we treat sex with the tenderness, openness, and grace that it deserves on film – and this is exactly what Lady Chatterley’s Lover does.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover comes to Netflix on December 2.