13 August 2008

Lady Chatterley

Lady Chatterley Not All Porn (But Still Not For Everyone)
Guest Review By Leigh Wood

On The cusp of my Lord of The Rings obsession, I’ve been passing the time by watching films starring the actors from Peter Jackson’s Oscar winning epic trilogy. When my quest for Sean Bean films led me to watch Ronin- in English and Spanish-I broke down and bought the first movie I had seen the Boromir actor in- the 1993 BBC production of Lady Chatterley.

Sure Patriot Games and Goldeneye are great, but it was director Ken Russell’s adaptation of the banned D.H. Lawrence novels that embedded Sean Bean in my brain. Sex, adultery, class divides, and naughty language sent not one, but three versions of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover underground. When the third and most tame version was finally published in 1928, scandal and controversy erupted on both sides of the Atlantic.

I knew nothing of this history when I first saw the theatrical two hour version late at night on cable. Boy or girl, a young teen will find the soft core porn that is currently everywhere in our society. At the time, I often tuned in for Red Shoe Diaries. A few bumps and grinds, perhaps some boobs, sometimes a nice story and historical location. The Marilyn Chambers movies, however, I could do without. I sought more than weak porn. I wanted a story.

Imagine my surprise when Lady Chatterley appeared. Unlike its early 20th century/World War I contemporaries Avonlea and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Lady Chatterley stars Joely Richardson as the sexually repressed young wife of a paralyzed veteran (James Wilby) who finds love in a scandalous affair with her husband’s gamekeeper (Sean Bean).

Make no mistake, there are kinky folks who will tune into the second and third parts of Lady Chatterley’s four hours purely for the sex scenes. To take the series only for those visuals, is however an injustice. The miniseries format allows director Russell to take the time and set up the marriage of Lady Constance and Sir Clifford. They are both intellectuals in the upper class. Connie hails from a heady and upstanding artistic family, and Sir Clifford has a long list of noble names to live up to. The couple get on well enough, but there is already strain between them when the story opens. One might wonder how and why they married in the first place. The War? Perhaps the union was an unofficially arranged one? Already we have questions, as does Lady Chatterley. She yearns for more than serving as nurse to her often grumpy (although understandably so) husband. Sir Clifford, however, doesn’t want to see his title end, and invites Connie to take a lover, in hopes of claiming an illegitimate child for his own.

At first, Constance clings to the image of a loyal wife-despite prodding from her own sister and father. She finds the ranch hand-foreman-wild-man-of-the-woods Mellors rude and fearful. Finally, after discussing the symbolism of the black horse of passion with Sir Clifford, Connie hires a nurse for her husband and sets off to explore her estate-an estate that the brutish and strong-not paralyzed-Mellors is always lurking. Inevitably, the Lady and the Gamekeeper begin a purely sexual affair. Their encounters grow to something more, and the couple seeks to find an escape from the society that divides them.

I dare say the serious opening and closing hours of Lady Chatterley are my favorites. The story’s setup and resolution are indeed more important than the sex scenes, even though no sexual scene is superfluous or fluff. The reflections on the war, striking coalminers, and class debates all give weight to the story. Sir Clifford reads and becomes extremely intellectual while bound to his wheelchair, yet he sees nothing wrong with the English class divides. Connie of course disagrees with the notion that there will always be people who boss and people to boss. Mellors is a higher servant than most, yet he still must take orders from other household servants, and Sir Clifford mocks his accented speech. Constance’s father and sister also find no problem with her taking a lover, but all expect it to be a man of upper standing, not a servant. Likewise, none of the lower class cared that Mellors and his wife lived separately until the affair with Lady Chatterley comes out. He becomes an outcast in his own society-a class that Clifford jokingly calls ‘the enemy’.

The absurdity of this class division is obvious to the viewer. The juxtaposition of the bright, big, and beautiful green Chatterley estate versus the cramped dirty, rocky mines is a smart move by Russell, as are the love scenes between Connie and Mellors. The natural wooded part of the estate is theirs, where class troubles can’t reach them, and simplicity and innocence rule-unlike the cold, structured halls of the Wragby estate.

Russell and his co screenwriter Michael Haggaig also give double duty to the production’s dialogue. I’ve not read any versions of Lawrence’s books, only criticisms, but the screenwriters use the sound source materials to their advantage. Every line spoken has double and symbolic meaning. Part one ends with the first significant interaction between Mellors and Lady Chatterley. She wants a key for the hut on the property, and Mellors closes with, ‘If you let me know when you want it.’ Sexual innuendo, the face value meaning, a little key into the lock penetration symbolism, and a hint of chastity belt referenced all in six words.

The acknowledgement of speech divides is also sharp. When Connie’s sister Hilda (Hetty Baynes) finally meets Mellors, she asks him to speak ‘normal English’. The similar but different nature of the way they talk should keep the lovers apart, but it is a treat for the audience. Listen closely, and not just for the naughty language.

Now of Nip/Tuck fame, Joely Richardson was fairly new at the time of Lady Chatterley’s release, as was future Sharpe star Sean Bean. Both give every ounce to the production, and the delivery from the actors is also perfect. The way Sean Bean says ‘Your Ladyship’ alone shows his pent up torment. We follow Connie’s perspective more, but listen closely to Mellors’ speeches. He’s been a lonely misunderstood soul and now he’s found an emotional awakening with the one woman he shouldn’t have. Likewise Joely Richardson is perfect in nearly every frame. She’s so proper in the beginning, then shrinks in illness. She looks radiant and grows in beauty as her relationship with Mellors grows. The looks and unspoken movements between the two are exceptional. She bites her lips and nails when observing Mellors, and he often tilts his head or hunches away shy in her presence-as opposed to his upright towering over the permanently seated Clifford.

The chemistry between the leads is evident, yet Russell swiftly finds ways to symbolically divide them onscreen. Many of the scenes between Richardson and Bean are through fences or gates, implying one or the other is always locked out or in. Even after their relationship begins, trees or posts will cut the two shot down the middle, leaving a divided but symmetrical shot onscreen. Subtle but brilliant from Russell. These shots show how out of her element Constance is, but also how trapped Mellors is. The cinematography, acting, and dialogue all multitask, and multiple viewings of Lady Chatterley is a must if one is to catch everything. Sir Clifford and his nurse Mrs. Bolton also develop a special relationship, parallel to Connie and Mellors, but acceptable of course. Their conversations seem more evenly matched. They play chess and the widowed nurse is more physically intimate with Sir Clifford then Connie, taking over the duties of bathing and shaving him. Her words are also accented, but Clifford never insults her about it. Wilby does a fine job as Clifford. He insults and bosses Mellors, but in fact it is Clifford who cannot function without his servants. Mellors may take orders, but he his own man, where Clifford’s paralysis puts him at the mercy of everyone else-even Mellors. Wilby swiftly moves from sorrowful and intelligent to brutish and melancholy. You feel bad for Clifford when his motorized chair gets stuck, and further emotional when it is Mellors who must push the crippled husband of his lover. Sir Clifford of course insults Mellors and then we hate him again.

Perfectly matching James Wilby is Shirley Anne Field as Mrs. Bolton. She plays the widowed nurse expertly yet with a slight air of ambiguity. Her button up style and always proper air are perfect, if a little Mrs. Danover from Rebecca. She claims to be there for both the husband and wife but clearly puts together the pieces about Lady Chatterley and Mellors. When rumors begin about their affair, Russell alludes that it might have been Mrs. Bolton leading the servant talk, yet she swiftly covers for Connie and keeps Sir Clifford in the dark. Clueless as he is anyway, Clifford doesn’t doubt Mrs. Bolton, nor does Lady Chatterley. It’s almost as if she might have let something slip, but not out of malice. Mrs. Bolton seems to understand that Wragby Hall isn’t where Connie belongs and seeks to speed her escape to Mellors. The women talk frankly about knowing true love, warmth, and tenderness from a man. Mrs. Bolton knows that is what Connie needs, and she won’t get it from Sir Clifford.

Social and sexual intrigue aside, Lady Chatterley is a stunning period piece. The Wragby Hall location is breathtaking and takes on the feel of a supporting character itself. When Mellors waits on its vast steps, he’s clearly out of his element. Likewise Clifford’s room could seem like a dream. Incredible bed, books everywhere, the piano and the latest inventions. Connie, of course, fits neither in the uppity hall or the meager shack in the woods. Joely Richardson’s costumes are so lush. Today such hats and flapper style dresses would seem ridiculous, but they looks gorgeous onscreen. The proper style, yet free spirited fabrics and layers fit the character so well, and Russell’s attention to detail sets everything off. Richardson’s wisps of hair and the clang of her beads set the tone for her wild ways.

Sean Bean’s costume also says far more about his character than he does. So lowly valued, yet he wears a button collar and tie while he lurks the woods with a dog and a gun strapped to his back. The wearing or removing of his page boy hat also add depth to Mellors’ mood and respectfulness. Even the music and props complete every scene. By no means is Lady Chatterley some B porn production. The wind up gramophones, old time radios, candelabras, and vintage cars sell every authenticity, and the score moves between modern jazz tunes and haunting classical arrangements. Russell insisted on using English compositions, and the tunes top off the flavor of the film.

But finally I must mention what I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for. The sex scenes in Lady Chatterley were spared nothing less than Russell’s best, of course. There isn’t any foreplay, fondling, or even oral sex. When Connie and Mellors finally get to it, they get to it. The initial consummation is a bit awkward for both parties. They discuss and try to resist but ultimately succumb to the sort of re-virginal experience. Lady Chatterley hasn’t been with a real man in some time, and Mellors confesses his demeaning wife was the only woman he had ever been with. The dialogue is indeed necessary in the kinky scenes. If what’s going on isn’t clear in the visuals, the characters say what they mean, and I mean they say it!

The pre and post conversations are particularly important in two ambiguous sex scenes-one that is near rape and another that is most likely anal sex. If you’re not reeling and all giggles over those, prepare yourself for Part 3. I suspect Lady Chatterley’s ‘For Mature Audiences Only’ warning is for the full frontal nudity sequences. I don’t wish to spoil it, but ladies if you go in slow motion, you will see the whole Bean.

In the end, however, Lady Chatterley isn’t about the tawdry sex scenes. By part 4, sensitive types may need a box of tissues. The speeches from Connie and Mellors are so sincere, honest, and downright poetic that the audience can’t help but root for the couple. Russell hold nothing back, from nasty husbands, kinky sex, and bad language so that we are raw, primed, and moved for the production’s big finish. In Lady Chatterley’s final fifteen minutes, you will be agonizing and cheering Connie and Mellors on to happiness. Do our fair lovers find each other at the end? I shan’t tell!

The Lady Chatterley DVD is available in all regional formats at a very affordable price. Usually under $30 at most retailers, or online if you’re a bit shy about the purchase. The double disc set has little special features to speak of, only a brief photo gallery, trailers, and an interview with Ken Russell. Not for children of course, I also don’t think men will enjoy Lady Chatterley. Despite plenty of Joely’s bits, males won’t be interested in the story or period costume drama. Keep Lady Chatterley for your own guilty pleasure, or for that all girls night you’ve been planning. All four hours in one sitting, tears, and repeat viewings- I assure you Lady Chatterley will not disappoint.

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