The lovely and magnetic young actor Emma Corrin certainly has a thing for characters who marry unwisely.
We cringed when Corrin’s winsome, affection-starved Diana married Charles in “The Crown,” knowing the heartbreak that lay ahead. Heartbreak also loomed for Harry Styles’ blushing bride in “My Policeman,” since we knew Styles’ character was already in a passionate affair with a man.
And now we see Corrin as a beaming bride yet again at the start of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” a new adaptation of the once scandalous 1928 D.H. Lawrence novel, launching another union that will bring grief. After all, the story is called “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” not “Lady Chatterley’s Husband.”
And yet unlike those first two characters, Corrin’s Lady Chatterley does get pretty much what she wants, ultimately, in a version tailor-made for, if not the #MeToo-era, then at least 21st-century views of female empowerment. This new “Chatterley,” directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre with a screenplay by David Magee, aims to tell the well-known story of an upper-class woman’s scandalous affair — crossing class barriers to achieve sexual pleasure and romantic love — from her own point of view, showing a woman who fights tooth and nail for control of both her body and her life, fiercely believing she deserves both.
Lawrence’s novel may have been shocking when it was published — most famously, it was the subject of a major obscenity trial in Britain — but it is not shocking now, no matter how frank the sex scenes. So any adaptation needs more to distinguish it than heaving bodies, however attractive.
And the best thing this one has is Corrin, ably supported by co-star Jack O’Connell as Oliver Mellors, the hunky yet sensitive gamekeeper on the Chatterley estate. From that very first bracing smile in the first scene, Corrin draws us in with a vibrancy that only deepens as the two-hour run time progresses. Yes, Corrin looks fabulous in the wonderful period (and yet somehow ephemeral) costumes by Emma Fryer, costumes that track young Lady Chatterley’s evolving mood and spirit. But mainly this is a performance that radiates emotional intelligence, spirit, and especially drive — drive to live, drive to love, drive to experience.
We first meet Constance Reid on her wedding day to Lord Chatterley, posing joyfully for photos, excited for the future. But this is the middle of World War I, and after a rushed wedding night, her new husband (Matthew Duckett, effective in a challenging role) is off to the front. When he returns six months after war’s end, he’s forever marked by war, paralyzed from the waist down. The couple settle into his vast country estate, Wragby, and Constance into her wifely duties bathing, dressing and tending to her spouse.
But Connie, as her family calls her, soon finds herself struggling through the long days in the countryside. She misses city life and resents her husband’s insensitive treatment of his workers. She takes restless walks, and soon finds herself in the shed where Oliver keeps his game. They strike up a conversation. Soon, they strike up a lot more.
Any “Chatterley” has to find a way to convey the transformative effect that carnal passion has on Connie, a passion that changes the trajectory of her life. Corrin and O’Connell are both fine actors who make us believe in their chemistry. But there’s an odd directorial choice here to bathe the lovers in a gray-blue light during their trysts, almost as if trying to hide them, whereas other scenes are presented in the brilliant light of sunny days and green fields. It gives a clinical quality to the proceedings, not the most enticing way to depict desire.
In any case, the passion evolves from lust into love, doomed though it surely must be, and soon Connie suspects she is pregnant. Oliver, though, is hardly the man Lord Chatterley had in mind when he suggested, with cool calculation, that his wife secretly enlist a man to help conceive an heir to the Chatterley name, since Chatterley himself is unable to do so. And Connie soon has different ideas. She wants a child, yes, but she also he wants a divorce. And she wants Oliver.
Though the plot is familiar, those who remember the book will find the ending different in important ways. What sticks in the memory, though, are the qualities Corrin brings to a famous character — grit, smarts, and a determination that she deserves personal fulfillment. It might be overstating the case to call this a feminist take on the novel. But Corrin, an exciting talent who we will doubtless be watching for years, gives us reason to crack open the dusty volume and consider it anew.
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” a Netflix release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “ for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and some language. “ Running time: 126 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.