Netflixable? Taming “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”

Full disclosure here, I had to watch Netflix’s new take on the oft-filmed “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” twice. No, not savor the sex scenes one more time. But because director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s lovely, natural light and “outdoorsy” version of the most scandalous novel of the 20th century, whose very title became sitcom shorthand for coitus at its most carnal, put me to sleep.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

It’s a reductive adaptation, boiling the book down to British class barriers transgressed by ever-so-naughty-for-post-World War I era sex. An attractive if not exactly high-profile (not much “star power”) cast is put through its paces in a perfunctory take on a book whose notoriety is filmed, but not its subtlety.

Emma Corrin, the gamine who played Diana on TV’s “The Crown,” has the title role, a shallow young wisp of a woman who marries well, sees her officer-class husband (Matthew Duckett) off to The Great War and finds herself bereft when he returns an invalid, incapable of sexually fulfilling her in the bloom of their youth, incapable of siring an heir to the title and his estate, Wragby House and all its lands.

His casually dropped “Almost be better if you could have a son by another man” is what sets things in motion. “We ought to be able to arrange this thing as simply as a trip to the dentist.”

Yes, it’s all rather like that, cut and dried, “lie back and think of England.” Cold-blooded.

The rugged working class veteran of the trenches Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell of “Unbroken”), just hired as their gamekeeper, is the one who catches her thirsty eye. A stop by his cottage, weeping at pheasant chicks and the newborn she’ll never have is the impetus for all that follows.

“You all right, me lady?”

Corrin has the perfect look for a Jazz Age flapper — thin, fine featured, a Klimt chin and all. She seems right at home in the posh parties the Chatterleys throw in London, and intentionally out of place — a delicate thing — in the midlands country life, where more vigorous figures thrive in nature, a working farm and the rough and tumble and labor strife (miners) riven local town.

Duckett hasn’t much to play as Clifford, stiff upper lip, not resentful — at first — of the affair he all but invited but which he would never approve of due to the class divide. It’s not the most colorful character, and the performance makes it more colorless still.

O’Connell suggests little of the swarthy cliche “the groundskeeper” became, almost the moment the novel came out. His Mellors is fretful, deferential, a naive man with urges who cannot help but lose himself in this affair which she wants but needs to keep within certain boundaries.

It’s a handsomely-mounted production all around, if quite flatly shot and lit, British TV miniseries lighting, blocking and all that.

Joely Richardson plays the rugged, tough miner’s widow Mrs. Bolton, hired for the household staff, soon running it and these soft poshes through the power of persuasion. That’s a character and a performance that could take over an adaptation as soft and narrowly-defined as this one.

And for all the attention to the sex — “We’ll have to be quick!”– in a barn, rough and ready nudity in the woods, this “Chatterley” lacks the heat of the more sordid takes on the novel. The 1981 version starred softcore starlet Sylvia Kristel, “Emmanuelle” herself, after all.

All that said, Clermont-Tonnerre, who did the affecting convict training a horse drama “The Mustang,” hasn’t made a bad “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” just a somewhat drab and less interesting one than the source material promises. It’s as if this production accepts that people outside of college English departments no longer read the novel, and all involved can safely assume that all anybody wants out of it are the bare bones — and bare bottoms.

Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and some language.

Cast: Emma Corrin, Jack O’Connell, Matthew Duckett and Joely Richardson

Credits: Directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, scripted by David Magee, based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence. A Netflix release.

Running time: 2:07

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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