HThere’s a movie that could so easily collapse into self-satire, especially at the first sneering-knowing intonation of the word “milady,” a phrase now probably most associated with Parker from Thunderbirds. But the devotion and passion of the two protagonists, Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell, carry this new version of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and actor-turned-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre finds the keynote of idealism. The film is never shy of eroticism and full sex, albeit sometimes a somewhat peculiar soft-focus approach. But Clermont-Tonnerre never doubts that this is a love story. The last note edit was by another French filmmaker, Pascale Ferran’s flawed Lady Chatterley (based on an earlier version of the book). Perhaps it takes a French director, not a British director, to respond to Lawrence’s forbidden tale of forbidden love.
It’s the middle of World War I and Constance Reid (Corrin) is the beautiful and impulsive young woman of upper class and progressive views who, after a troubled emotional past, sincerely believes she is in love with Sir Clifford Chatterley; they marry before he has to go back to the front, barely knowing each other. At the end of the war he is a more brooding figure, using a wheelchair after a terrible war injury, and it is in a gloomy mood that the new Lady Chatterley arrives with him at Wragby, his sprawling estate, paid for by the sweating soldiers. labor in his coal mine.
There she becomes estranged from the friends he invites from London for a weekend. Sir Clifford is a shallow, down-to-earth character: after taking up fiction writing, he throws himself into making his colliery even more profitable by laying off some miners and exploiting the rest more ruthlessly. Coolly obsessed with producing an heir, this powerless plutocrat makes it clear to a stunned Constance that he will allow her a discreet affair if it produces the right result. Coincidentally, Constance has become obsessed with the handsome gamekeeper, Mellors (played fiercely by O’Connell, who maintains his character’s dignity). He is the only person in her life capable of human sympathy.
Both hypocrisy and sex boost the story. Sir Clifford is quite happy if Constance strays, as long as it’s with someone of the right class. But the film shows how Constance herself is a hypocrite: she initially considers using Mellors to conceive without regard to his feelings. But their relationship and their sensuality become an almost religious revelation for both of them. Love and sex, two things so casually taken for granted in so many different kinds of stories, become totemic articles of faith here. Lady Chatterley still has the strength to move.