Looking Back At LADY CHATTERLEY (1993) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At LADY CHATTERLEY (1993)

If you want Tony, he’ll be down in the woods.
Everybody thinks they know Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Written by DH Lawrence and first published in 1928 in France, it’s the book where an English lady eschews her lord-of-the-manor husband, and prefers instead to roll around in the woods with the gamekeeper of their estate, right?

Well, yes. And then again, no. That’s far too simplistic a breakdown of a book that broke not only sexual taboos – it describes, and then has people acknowledge, a woman’s orgasm, for one thing – but also dividing lines of class, ideas of fidelity irrespective of circumstance, and the notion that blood was all-Important to British aristocrats.

So disturbing was the book to a Britain that refused to believe that such things were possible (it’s not for nothing that the UK is the land of Upstairs, Downstairs!) that a full, uncensored version of the book was not published in the land of its birth and setting until 1960, 30 full years after DH Lawrence was dead. That was the scandalising nature of the book.

Since then, of course, it’s been rendered on screen several times, though, as with the book, it’s a story that has found adaptation in French a lot more often than in English.

The 1993 version was directed by Ken Russell and starred Sean Bean as Mellors, the gamekeeper, Joely Richardson as Constance Chatterley, and James Wilby as Sir Clifford.

That in itself is enough to tell cinephiles a lot of what they need to know about the series. Joely Richardson is Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter, and has gone on to have an illustrious career in movies and TV. Sean Bean is very definitely NOT Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter, , but has also had a career strewn with hits on both the big screen and the small, frequently managing stand-out performances before he always, always dies. And James Wilby has had a career that has regularly seen him pinned as an aristocrat, as Lord This or Viscount That, so that he should have been spotted as the perfect vehicle for Clifford’s childlike complexities and certainties makes perfect sense.

Ken Russell of course had one of the most unusual reputations for a British director. Ironically perhaps, in a British film world relatively known for its buttoned-up correctness and prudery, Russell was all about making the audience FEEL things – sometimes, the things they felt would be revulsion, sometimes passion, but always with Russell there was a visceral quality to the emotions he drew from his material. If you want to be obvious, he was much more of a Mellors than a Clifford in his outlook and his dramatic direction.

It's interesting that the 1993 version truncates the title of Lawrence’s novel, almost promising more of a Constance-centric version of the story. That’s not especially what it delivers, but that’s only because the story as written is pretty much centred on Constance to begin with. The men in her life – and there are more than just Clifford and Mellors in the novel – are all more or less adjuncts to her own intellectual and emotional life, her own dilemmas of morality and need.

If anything, the Ken Russell version stays impressively close to the novel, while cutting out a lot of the prefacing – while the novel goes into some detail about the type of age in which the story is set, and the sexual sensibilities of its young people, Russell boils down the verbiage to a sermon by the local vicar and a quick mention between Constance and her sister Hilda (Hetty Baynes) of their lovers in Germany before the war. It’s economically done, but if you don’t know the novel, there’s a chance you’ll miss the significance of these moments.

Suffice it to say, Constance was not the blushing virgin bride of popular morality in the 1920s when she came to marry Clifford Chatterley – and they were married only a month before he was injured in the war, paralysed from the waist down.

As his elder brother and his father also died before the start of the story, Clifford will be the last of the Chatterleys – unless he can persuade Connie to have a child with “any eligible, reasonably intelligent man” who he can then claim as his own and raise as a Chatterley.

This is the surprising thing about Lady Chatterley’s Lover – it’s Clifford who drives Constance towards an affair, rather than (at least initially) her own longings. The trick of course is in Clifford’s qualifiers that the man be eligible and reasonably intelligent – by which he means someone reasonably like himself. It’s not ever that she has a passionate affair that bothers Clifford – but the man with whom she chooses to have it, and the potential peril that she will actually LEAVE Clifford, leave the estate and take any potential child with her.

Constance, for her part, at first tries to show Clifford that they can still have at least some sexual dimension in their marriage, but he shuns her attempts to get him to touch her. That’s a scene given particular life and imagination in Russell’s version, Richardson committing to the ‘married seductress’ role, and Wilby reacting with impressive fury and hurt.

It’s a scene where, both unknowingly, Constance and Clifford do each other the first real damage in their marriage, as he believes she’s taunting him with his inability to respond to her ‘like a real man,’ and she is heartbroken and devastated that his injury seems to mean he doesn’t want ANY form of sexual contact with her. The hurt and the rejection are both expertly played, and you feel the turning point as it’s reached.

Another thing people often get wrong about Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the idea that it’s all mind-blowing, explosive, orgasmic ecstasy once Constance runs into the gamekeeper.

Now, it’s true that Mellors unlocks something in Constance, but it’s as much mixed up with her sympathy for the local poor and for relatively defenceless creatures – at least on some level – as it is that he’s the first man to have an externalised passion that matches her own internalised, swallowed-down, buttoned-up heart.

In fact, in the book, there’s a good amount of build-up to their first time together, and – and this is the crucial thing – for Constance, the first time is not that great. She expects it will be, with him, and she knows it COULD be, with him, and that’s what burns her. The first time they actually get together though, it’s not that much different to how it’s been with other men before. It’s an allowance to him, a case of her giving herself and him taking her. And while it’s still better than it has been with the nicer, more discreet men at whom her husband would wink, it’s not all stars exploding, lights in the sky, being thrown helpless and breathless across the universe. It’s just sex.

The exploding stars only come when there’s danger, and want, and a degree of unreadiness, when, as Mellors puts it, “they come off together.” That’s an elusive, joyous, growling moment of unbridled madness, and without prettying up the sex at all – there’s no jazz saxophone over their union here, this is a Ken Russell production, and even on the BBC he wants you to feel the realism – it’s clear from their clinging together in the aftermath, their shuddering, their seeming NEED to be wrapped in each other, that this is a pivotal moment for both the gamekeeper who prefers to stay away from people, and the lady whose heart the mass of people never guess at, even slightly.

Importantly, their next time is even more of a dud than the first – it’s started by a quarrel, and while that can be a spark to passion, with these two, the energy is wrong when they have too much time to think, to intellectualise their world and their togetherness. Again, the combination of Bean, Richardson and Russell’s direction makes the moment real, and even brutish, as Mellors, knowing the energy was wrong, dismisses it with a casual “Bound to be one bad nut in a barrel full” and leaves Constance alone and crying. Crying that she wants to love him, but can’t.

Because that of course is the fly in Lady Chatterley’s ointment. She has a man at home she could have lived with in relative contentment her whole life, raising her children when they came, without ever really unleashing the power of her love. And now she’s found a man she knows she wants to love in a heady, reckless way – the daylight, shout-about-it equivalent of their lovemaking – but he’s a gamekeeper, and poor, and his lifestyle, compared to that with which she’s familiar and comfortable, is squalid and brutish, even if his soul is finer than he ever lets on.

We badly want to spoil the ending for you, but won’t. Suffice it to say that when the truth comes out, as it was bound to do, the world comes tumbling down on top of the two of them. Does Lady Constance Chatterley go cap in hand to her invalid husband and beg his forgiveness on her knees? Or does she reap the whirlwind of her passion and go beggarly into the world?

That, you’ll have to watch the series to find out. All we’ll tell you here is that if you’ve believed in the performances all the way along – and you probably will have – then the ending won’t come as either too much of a surprise, or as any kind of disappointment.

It’s fair to say that Lady Chatterley is not a story with which to engage if you’re overly comfortable with your life or overly rich. Overly rich in this case meaning simply rich enough that the plight of the poor can’t touch you, as it touches Constance, and as it palpably doesn’t touch Clifford, who owns the local mine and is determined to work his men for profit, even as they starve.

But if you’ve ever felt like you’re living a life that’s not true to yourself, you’ll find a soulmate in Joely Richardson’s Constance Chatterley. If you’ve ever washed your hands of human engagement, or love, or all that emotional entanglement, you’ll understand the fragility and gruffness and panic of Sean Bean’s Oliver Mellors. And in the Ken Russell 1993 interpretation of the story, you’ll really feel those connections, rather than simply rehearsing them in any intellectual way.

Yes, Russell’s grasp of subtext is sometimes less than subtle – Constance’s dreams of a black horse breaking free at the thought of Mellors, right after discussing the “spiritual horses of desire and restraint” with Clifford is less a case of “I see what you did there” and more a case of “I really couldn’t freaking miss what you did there.”

But if Russell pushes the messages home, it’s because the whole story is encapsulated in that duality – passion and restraint, the working poor and the idle rich, the feeling of emotions and the emptiness of words. And in a less forthright director’s hands, it’s easy to let Lady Chatterley fall on the wrong side of those divides, to make her a spoilt little rich girl, dabbling with the staff.

She’s much more than that, and the story has more passion and fury in it than such a mishandling would allow.

You’re never in danger of getting it wrong in the hands of Ken Russell, which makes the 1993 Lady Chatterley probably the most accomplished filmed rendering of Lawrence’s novel, and his intent, yet recorded in English.

Watch Lady Chatterley today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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