D.H. Lawrence’s taboo novel is well-known for its racy content. Despite being written in the early 20’s, Chatterley’s Lover wasn’t published in Britain until the 1960s. However, translating ‘erotic’ moments from page to screen isn’t easy. How do you draw the line between artistic and gratuitous? BBC One took-on this challenge with their recent adaptation earlier this year. But have they done right by one of Nottingham’s best-loved sons?
Director Jed Mercurio sets-up his characters quickly and efficiently. The opening montage outlines the love-affair of Sir Clifford Chatterley (James Norton) and the soon-to-be Lady Chatterley (Holliday Grainger). After marriage, World War One hits Europe. Clifford is called to fight, leading British troops to the field of battle. This includes one unassuming miner, Oliver Mellors (Richard Madden). Upon return, Clifford has been paralysed from the waist-down, leaving him sexually impotent. Shocked by the sudden burden of a disabled husband, Lady Chatterley fights to maintain the semblance of an ordinary marriage. Here is where Mercurio’s direction finds its dramatic teeth.
At its heart, this is a book about marriage. In particular, it begs the question ‘how far can we rely on spiritual love’? Aren’t physical bonds a strong part of marital connections? This debate is epitomised in the fraught performance of Holliday Grainger, which indeed is one of the best reasons for watching. Following Clifford’s return, her initial reaction is one of pity and shock. However, as time sets-in, things begin to changes. A lady of her stature isn’t used to physical strain, let alone manoeuvring a 6 foot plus man. So, she comes to despise her husband, but also resents herself for doing so.
It’s a tricky balancing-act to maintain, but Grainger shows enough of each to make Lady Chatterley a complex, if not entirely laudatory, central character. It isn’t only lust which drives her into the arms Oliver Mellors, the Chatterley estate’s new gamekeeper. Oh no, there’s a complicated breakdown of desperation, fear and malfunctioning dreams. Horrible to experience but, when portrayed by Grainger, delightful to watch.
Also worth praising is the show’s aesthetic. Whilst most of the ‘action’ takes place in the Chatterley estate, this offers a great chance for the exploration of British countryside. Specifically, the onset of spring brings us oaks, chest-nuts and chicks. All of these help create a British locality which is strongly representative of Lawrence’s Nottinghamshire roots. The one excursion to a local town shows-off another not-so-popular British classic, red-brick terrace. Altogether, Mercurio’s scenery presents an honest depiction of 1920’s Britain, which is faithful to Lawrence’s original material – the good, the bad and the ugly.
The aspect most-criticised are those infamous sex-scenes. Far from the usual complaints of female objectification, in this instance, critics have targeted the lack of nudity in Mercurio’s version. To this end, it’s not difficult to see why. After all, neither actor reveals any taboo body-parts. According to Mercurio, this was an attempt to show ‘passion without nudity’, without using the female body for mere ‘titillation’. Noble intentions aside, this creates a fundamental paradox. The book which was censored for its ‘realistic’ depictions of sex, is brought to life in an adaptation that’s squeamish about the human body. It’s a conundrum that continues to vex throughout the show’s 90 minute runt-time.
Inaccuracies aside, the BBC’s adaptation is faithful in the best possible way – it gets to the heart of the novel. It tackles the themes of love, marriage and class, using Lawrence’s custom of a cruel and unflattering lens. Nothing is romanticised in this ‘romantic’ outing, which doubles-up as a chilling breakdown of human relationships. For anyone interest in one of Nottingham’s most prestigious writers, and for anyone interested in local culture, this is an absolute must-see.
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