“This is a love story.” These are the words uttered by Mrs Bolton (Joely Richardson) in the final moments of Netflix‘s Lady Chatterley’s Lover to a group of women gossiping about the events we’ve just watched unfold. As nurse to Lord Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), Mrs Bolton has had a front row seat for the spectacle of Lady Constance Chatterley’s (The Crown star Emma Corrin) affair with the estate’s gamekeeper Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell).
But this film is much more than a love story.
You’ve probably heard of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the steamy D.H. Lawrence novel, which was the subject of a controversial trial in the UK in 1960. The novel was banned for obscenity in the U.S., Canada, Australia, India, and Japan. Nevertheless, the book sold millions of copies, while also inviting mass shock and consternation for its explicit sexual descriptions and repeated use of the F-word and C-word. What’s not to like?
What’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover about?
Credit: Seamus Ryan / Netflix
Lady Chatterley’s Lover tells the story of Constance “Connie” Reid, a wealthy daughter of an artist who marries Sir Clifford Chatterley shortly before he travels back to The Front during the First World War. Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre with a screenplay by David Magee, the film opens with scenes of the pair’s wedding day, during which Clifford’s father, Sir Geoffrey Chatterley (Alistair Findlay), gives a toast which sums up exactly what’s expected of his son’s new bride.
“So, here’s to Clifford and Connie, our new hope for an heir to Ragby,” says Sir Geoffrey.
“Oh father, you know that’s not just why we married,” says Clifford.
“Why else would a baronet get married?” Sir Geoffrey replies.
Despite the newlyweds’ public insistence on the marriage as purely a love match, the veil slips later in the film, when Clifford returns from war and makes it clear that an heir to Ragby is expected. “It means a lot to the people here,” Clifford tells his wife. However, Clifford is paralysed from the waist down after being injured during the First World War and in the aftermath of Clifford’s injury, Connie and Clifford no longer share a sexual relationship.
With the pressure still on, Clifford makes it clear to Connie that he wants her to sleep with another man in order to produce an heir, though explicitly sets rules inhibiting her from “yielding herself completely to him,” and instructing her to “govern your emotions accordingly” in the process. “The mechanical act of sex is nothing when compared to a life lived together,” he says. Being a wealthy aristocrat, he also clarifies that Connie should avoid “the wrong sort of fellow” and only consider upper class men as candidates for siring an heir.
This moment is a turning point in the film. We see Corrin’s Connie barely containing her rage and nausea at the suggestion, though her husband barely notices (he never really does). We see Connie coming to terms with the dawning realisation that she really is just a vessel for an heir. As Connie seeks solace in a small hut on the estate, searching for an escape and freedom from the expectations that are beginning to close in on her, Corrin paints a portrait of a character in deep turmoil and it is affecting to watch.
And “governing one’s emotions” isn’t exactly what fate has in store for Connie…
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a romance, but also a story about class.
Credit: Seamus Ryan / Netflix
While Mrs Bolton’s words are very true of Netflix’s adaptation of the novel, the film is also a story about class. During her solitude, Connie begins spending time with Mellors, the estate’s gamekeeper, and it’s here she finds tenderness, care, passion, and yes, love — the elements that have been wanting in her own marriage. But, in Clifford’s eyes, this working class man is exactly the “wrong sort of fellow” he pompously declared earlier as unsuitable.
This particular adaptation feels more infused with commentary on class than previous versions — Jed Mercurio’s 2015 film with Holiday Grainger and Richard Madden, Pascale Ferran’s 2006 film, and the 1993 BBC television serial starring none other than Richardson with Sean Bean — which, though it’s set over 100 years ago, feels relevant amid the cost of living crisis of today, which is already causing tension in people’s relationships.
Corrin and O’Connell have intense on-screen chemistry and you cannot help but be pulled into their convincingly passionate love affair. O’Connell delivers a beguiling and complex Mellors, who is treated poorly and imperiously by his aristocratic employer Clifford, and is acutely aware of the vulnerability of his position in this love triangle.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is, of course, overtly steamy.
As their tryst develops, so too do the sex scenes, which are infused with freedom by director De Clermont-Tonnerre. It’s clear that this relationship is being presented as a liberation from the emotionless and rigid aristocracy and the oppressive class structures that rule society. We see Corrin and O’Connell running naked through fields, making love in nature — they inhabit the wilderness and their love is presented as untamed.
During their second encounter together, De Clermont-Tonnerre includes a cunnilingus scene which zooms in on Corrin’s face, capturing their facial expression. There is a prioritisation of Connie’s pleasure in this scene; when she comes, she gets up and walks out.
But beyond their obviously strong physical connection, Connie’s own story is about questioning and ultimately rejecting the unpalatable privilege that surrounds her. She rejects the societal obligation to keep up appearances and provide an heir at her husband’s request (who, naturally, doesn’t even ask her what she would like to do).
“You and your ruling class!” Connie yells at Clifford, making plain her true feelings.
Connie and Mellors, both bound by different struggles from the same power structure that oppresses them both, ultimately find agency by rejecting society’s rules and expectations. In the end, they choose love.