D.H. Lawrence’s novel about the passionate affair between an upper class woman and her husband’s gamekeeper was first published in 1928. As a result of its graphic sexual content and repeated profanities, the book was not allowed to be published in Britain in its unedited form until 1960. I remember secretly reading my Nan’s battered copy of the novel when I was about 13 (skipping forward to read the rude bits first, naturally), and being simultaneously shocked and delighted by just how racy it was. Indeed, flicking through it now, almost a decade later, the story hasn’t lost any of its impact. Lawrence’s novel is one of those rare “scandalous” books that still has the power to thrill modern readers, a story that isn’t just deliciously frank about sex and sexuality for the time in which it was written, but full stop.
With this in mind, I tuned into the BBC drama expecting to watch something appropriately boundary pushing, an adaptation faithful to the soul of the novel. What I got was something that left me with mixed emotions.
Anyone who tuned in hoping for something salacious has most likely been left bitterly disappointed. Viewers and critics alike have bemoaned the adaptation’s lack of sexual content, with reviewers branding the drama “impotent” and “mystifyingly coy about the human body”. For the sake of balance, I will say that I thought the few sex scenes the adaptation did have were beautifully shot, and I was impressed by the lack of gratuitous female nudity. Too often getting an actress to appear topless is lazy shorthand for “look how steamy this is!”, so part of me found it admirable that this wasn’t the case here; when, in a story of this nature, nudity would have been editorially justified. However, small merits aside, I’m inclined to agree with the critics.
To put it bluntly, the sex is tame. It’s as prettily lifeless as a perfume commercial, all the soft lighting and trilling violins a flimsy cover for the fact that the scenes have almost no underlying passion. Richard Madden, who plays Oliver Mellors, has said that he never would have starred in the adaptation had it been “raunchy and crude”, stating “I just wanted to tell a love story”. I think Madden might have missed the point. One of the key themes of Lawrence’s novel is the idea that mind and body must find a balance, and thus what Connie seeks from Mellors is precisely what she isn’t getting from her husband. Yes, the pair fall in love, but animal attraction is what originally brings them together, and by underplaying this in the hopes of being tasteful the BBC drama ends up falling curiously flat.
It isn’t all bad. The drama’s handling of the novel’s class themes is well done, and I liked the fact that the mining disaster that takes place in the first few minutes, which appears in the novel only in passing, is given such importance. The juxtaposition between the scene in which the miners’ families mourn their lost friends and relatives, and the one which follows it, the high society ball at which Connie and Clifford meet, is brutally effective. Likewise, the conversation between Connie and her housekeeper, in which the latter details the meagre compensation and patronising lack of sympathy with which she was greeted after the death of her husband in the same mining accident, is enough to fill anyone with class rage.
The acting is also very good. Holliday Grainger, practically a period drama veteran at only 27, is wonderfully convincing as the eponymous Connie Chatterley, her frustration over her sexless marriage and distant husband easy to sympathise with. Richard Madden makes an attractive and sympathetic Mellors, all the more so considering that the gamekeeper’s scorned wife has been conveniently written out of the story.
The standout performance, however, comes from James Norton as Clifford Chatterley. It would have been easy for Norton to have made Clifford unlikeable, simply playing him as a pathetic, impotent foil to the virile and infinitely more appealing Mellors. Norton avoids this lazy characterisation completely, endowing him with enough humanity and complexity to make him thoroughly sympathetic in spite of his snobbishness. When he tells Constance, with a note of shame in his voice, that he can’t be the “figure of potency” he feels he should, it’s hard not to feel pathos for the man. The final time we see him, promising Connie her divorce with tears in his eyes, it is clear that he is not acting out of a sense of defeat, but rather out of a desire to do his wife one last kindness.
If I were not familiar with the book then I probably would have given this version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at least four stars. The adaptation is well-acted, lavishly shot, and faithful to the novel’s class themes – if only it were as loyal to those aspects that resulted in the book being banned for over thirty years. Ironically, in robbing the story of so much of its physicality, it also robs it of its soul.