Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 24, 2022 10:12 pm 
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Once more with feeling - and explanations

It seems as though somebody has to film Lady Chatterley's Lover every few years. Instead people should read D.H. Lawrence's novel. Except the published version isn't the best, it seems. It is wiser to read one of his other novels like The Rainbow, Women in Love, or Sons and Lovers. They're wonderful reads, lovely deep studies of intense love relationships. After reading the book and seeing several film versions, one is tempted to go back to D.H. Laurence's earlier novels, which are better. Maybe a new movie of Lady Chatterley's Lover is a need. One can easily see why two actors in their prime would want to play in such a love story. But since it was radical and controversial, and the rules for using four-letter words and talking about sex have changed radically by now, don't you need to do something new and surprising?

I was very satisfied with Pascale Ferran's 2006 film, known as Lady Chatterley, which I reviewed at the San Francisco Film Festival (in a nearly three-hour form cut down from a longer television production). Marina Hands was magical, and the two key male actors weren't stereotypes. That version was based on D.H. Laurence's earlier form of the novel (not the final, generally published, version), which is simpler and doesn't have the cute pet names for the private parts. I even liked that the quality of a fable was created by keeping all the English people's names and place names, while all the dialogue and the locations were French. That added flavor to a filming that was fairly conventional, even though its fulsome love scenes were riveting.

The new version directed by the French actress with the flowery aristocratic-sounding name Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, is very well done in its way. Its blue- or pink-tinted images are painterly. But it's watered-down. How can you make a film so lacking in formal invention of a book that is or at least was so daring? Mlle. de Clermont-Tonnerre transitioned from acting to making feature films three years ago with Mustang starring Matthias Schoenaerts - not to be confused with the 2015 Turkish Mustang. It's all shot at a splendid estate. Even the gamekeeper's cottage seems palatial (if lacking in insulation). There is a lovely (slightly overdone) Venice sequence toward the end in which Emma Corrin, who plays Connie, gets to model a green Twenties gown that is to die for. It's one of the most breathtakingly beautiful dresses and colors I've ever seen in a film. A Best Costume Design Oscar nom could be justified just for that one dress. But of course that a dress seems so important reflects on the film.

The cast does a creditable job. Emma Corrin - who played Lady Di in "The Crown" - is by no means just a clothes horse - though she is a bit long and lanky for such a naked role. She shows much commitment. The great Jack O'Connell (This Is England, "Skins," Starred Up, '71), an actor of explosive energy, doesn't have to prove himself as Mellors, the gamekeeper lover, and he seems a bit buttoned-down for an actor of such energy. But we get it: he's the strong silent type, and his passion is that of a man who's traumatized by an awful wife and who's aware of the danger of this transgression. This is a Mellors who has been smoothed over. One is surprised to learn that he reads James Joyce and speaks fairly standard English, and that he is capable of writing a well-turned letter to Connie from Scotland after he's been fired for involving the estate in scandal and is ready (spoiler alert) to call on her to come to him. He has come back from the War "a full Lieutenant": he deserves a fine lady. Maybe that isn't what Lawrence had in mind. He was meant to be earthier.

Matthew Duckett as Clifford Chatterley is another example of the costumer's art, perfectly turned out from the waist up in his every scene. There is something slightly chilly and repulsive about him.

This is an unusually expository version of this familiar work. The adaptor, David Magee, takes no chances about letting us know the brutal status of the miners and the rigidity of the class system, the utter condescension of Clifford Chatterley, Connie's aristocratic husband who has returned paralyzed and rendered impotent by the First World War, and who spells out that he not only owns his inherited estate in the Midlands at Wragby Hall, and the coal mine, but the miners too. At dinners, everyone is a toff and a bore. We are not allowed to sympathize with Chatterley for a moment. This perhaps isn't quite what Lawrence had in mind, either. Chatterley is not only a stuffy toff, who's literally dead down there, he's a prick as well. That's a bit much. It's made particularly clear that having a child by another man is fine, indeed desirable, to produce an "heir," but that the man's being of low station is totally unacceptable. This is in the story. It's just that more expository dialogue is devoted to it.

The schoolmistress, Mrs. Flint (Ella Hunt) buys into the status quo. Only the old nurse, Mrs. Bolton (Joely Richardson), who takes over Chatterley's care with a maternal intimacy, is nice.

Of course as always with this tale it's the passionate sex-into-love (though less profoundly developed than the relationships in D.H. Lawrence's other novels) that counts and that holds our attention. But the socio-economic explanations and precise details about other characters distract from the passion in this version. Ferran's spent much more of the time on the affair.

There are some hardcore sex moments. Mellors goes down on Milady, and there's some enthusiastic anal intercourse. There's also the naked gambol in the rain storm, with Mellors jumping and skipping in thoroughly silly fashion. It lacks the poetry of the Pascale Ferran version or the attention it pays to the unfolding of the relationship.

Corrin and O'Connell are nonetheless very good together. Her face blooms whenever she is with him, and afterward. There is an electricity between them. This is what counts, of course. There is nothing seriously wrong with this adaptation. But also nothing to get excited about, no flair, no formal invention.

Lady Chatterley's Lover, 126 mins., debuted at Telluride, also showing at London, Middleburg, and AFT. In theaters Nov. 22, it will be out on Netflix in many countries Dec. 2. Metacritic rating: 66%.

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