Here is a movie that could so easily collapse into self-satire, especially at the first sneery-knowing intonation of the word “milady”, a phrase probably now most associated with Parker from Thunderbirds. But the commitment and passion of its two lead performers, Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell, carries this new version of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the actor turned director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre finds the keynote of idealism. The film is never shy of eroticism and full-on sex, if sometimes going for a slightly quaint soft-focus approach. But Clermont-Tonnerre is never in any doubt that this is a love story. The last adaptation of any note was from another French film-maker, Pascale Ferran’s flawed Lady Chatterley (based on an earlier version of the book). Perhaps it takes a French and not a British director to respond to Lawrence’s forbidden tale of forbidden love.
It is the middle of the first world war and Constance Reid (Corrin) is the beautiful and impulsive young woman of upper-class birth and progressive views who, after a chequered emotional past, honestly believes herself to be in love with Sir Clifford Chatterley; they get married before he has to return to the front, hardly knowing each other at all. At the war’s end, he is a gloomier figure, using a wheelchair after a terrible war injury, and it is in a sombre mood that the new Lady Chatterley is to arrive with him at Wragby, his vast country estate, paid for by the sweated labour at his colliery.
There, she is alienated from the friends he invites up from London for the weekend. Sir Clifford is a shallow, meretricious figure: after dabbling in writing fiction, he throws himself into making his colliery even more profitable by laying off some miners and exploiting the rest more ruthlessly. This impotent plutocrat is coldly obsessed with producing an heir, making it clear to the bewildered Constance that he will permit her to have a discreet affair if that produces the correct result. As it happens, Constance has become obsessed with the handsome gamekeeper, Mellors (vehemently played by O’Connell, who maintains his character’s dignity). He is the only person in her life capable of human sympathy.
Hypocrisy as well as sex is what supercharges the story. Sir Clifford is quite content for Constance to stray as long as it is with someone of the right class. But the film shows how Constance is a hypocrite herself: she initially considers using Mellors to get pregnant without considering his feelings. But their relationship and their sensuality become an almost religious revelation to them both. Love and sex, two things taken so casually for granted in so many different kinds of story, here become totemic articles of faith. Lady Chatterley still has the power to move.
• Lady Chatterley’s Lover is released on 25 November in UK cinemas and on 2 December on Netflix.