‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ review: Little to love beyond Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell’s performances in Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s listless adaptation | LFF
A spirit of thoughtless anachronism looms over Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Netflix’s crude and cynical attempt at seeing if some of the steam generated from their success with Bridgerton might spill over elsewhere. Alas, Julia Quinn is no D. H. Lawrence, nor is scribe David Magee any match for the great modernist author, and this dull, drippy adaptation fails quite comprehensively, if also unspectacularly. The least Lawrence might have asked for would be a flaming dumpster fire of a movie yet, for all its raunchiness, de Clermont-Tonnerre’s film barely reaches a flicker.
What hobbles this movie most is its resolute lack of ambition. Novels penned prior to the rise of a cinematic storytelling style often make for awkward adaptations – they can be measured, episodic, fueled less by dramatic incident than careful character development and painstaking descriptive detail. It’s their richness of tone and style that makes the best of them the classics we know today, yet too many screenwriters seem to feel the urge to simply bung as much plot into their condensed remodeling. Magee supplies this movie its basic narrative outline, de Clermont-Tonnerre gives that outline cinematic form, and a cast of determined actors does their best to flesh out that which their creative leads leaves so little space for, between all the coming and going (and coming again, if you’re lucky!).
Lady Constance (Emma Corrin) is snappily wed to the frigid, troubled soon-to-be war veteran Clifford (Matthew Duckett), shipped off to Ragby Hall to look after his injured body and mind, stifled by the pastoral isolation of the setting and the callous detachment of her spouse, then insatiably attracted to their rugged groundskeeper Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell). And so, they commence a passionate affair both in and out of his rainy woodland cabin as Clifford seeks to exercise his societal superiority over the local striking miners, Constance’s sister Hilda (Faye Marsay) learns of her indiscretions, and Clifford’s nurse Mrs. Bolton (Joely Richardson) does her best to keep an uneasy peace between the various parties, all the way to the 1 hour 40-minute mark. A literary masterpiece in shorthand, 100 measly minutes of exposition, sex, exposition, sex, and swift, simplistic resolution.
It’s all so hurried, you’d think it’d at least be engaging, but shorn of Lawrence’s vibrant prose, there’s remarkably little to engage with in what is, otherwise, a fairly banal story. And it’s all so hurried, you’d wonder how they manage to find the time to have so much sex, but alas this is D. H. Lawrence after all, and indeed a post-Bridgerton D. H. Lawrence, so there’s certainly a mandate for it. It’s here that de Clermont-Tonnerre seems to find some purpose – without dialogue or any other dramatics to wade through, Constance and Oliver’s encounters, both physically and emotionally, afford her the opportunity to enrich these characters a little, to understand them better through their interactions. Yet despite a level of explicitness that has me scratching my head at the MPAA’s R rating (not a criticism, just a comment – one particular scene recalled nothing I’ve ever seen outside hardcore pornography), this is a distinctly unerotic movie. It’s cast in steely blue lighting, ever eager to move onto whatever’s next, and its sole few glimpses of full-frontal nudity occur outside of its sex scenes. It’d be softcore at best, if it even had a core.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover just doesn’t have the time to build itself a core. It’s not all Magee’s fault, nor the editors – even many of the movie’s line deliveries are rushed, though when the script has words like “ballpark” emerging from the mouths of 1910s/1920s English upper-class characters, it’s no great wonder why the actors might want to speed through it. And they’re a uniformly talented crop: Corrin is a magnetic lead, thankfully abandoning the heavy-handedness they brought to their portrayal of Diana Spencer on The Crown; Richardson makes Mrs. Bolton a most vivid presence every time she’s on screen; O’Connell possesses a dynamism about his manner that far transcends this dreary, pedestrian material, and it’s exactly what the movie needs, so it’s fitting that he’s the best thing about it. As an acting showcase, this is an entirely serviceable product. But it ought to be an exceptional one – Lawrence adaptations have won actors Oscars in the right hands before – not just for the cast but for Lawrence himself. As yet another disposable Netflix title dumped on the platform to little fanfare, it’ll hardly sully the great writer’s reputation, but seeing something with this much potential reduced to another disposable Netflix title is arguably worse.
It’s been more than 90 years since its publication, and nobody’s about to forget Lady Chatterley’s Lover any time soon but mark my words: you’ll have forgotten most of this movie after 90 minutes, and you’ll be all the better for it.
Netflix will release Lady Chatterly’s Lover globally on December 2.