This is not actually a cult movie, but a TV series by a cult movie-maker, so I'm blogging about it anyway! Lady Chatterley in 1993 represented something of a return to his roots for Ken Russell. He was returning to D. H. Lawrence (and it was after all his adaptation of Lawrence’s Women in Love in 1969 that first brought him widespread public and critical acclaim) and he was also returning to BBC television, where he’d first honed his film-making skills.
Doing Lawence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a mini-series rather than a feature film worked rather well. In a film there would have been a temptation to focus more on the purely sexual elements of the story. Since you can’t do that on television, the mini-series is much more focused on the characters, on the love story, and on the class elements.
Sir Clifford Chatterley returns from the First World War crippled. He not only can’t walk, he can’t satisfy his beautiful young wife Connie sexually. And of course he can’t produce an heir to his estates and his title (he’s a baronet). The estates include a major coal mine. Sir Clifford wants an heir very badly, and he also realises that it’s not realistic to expect a young woman to be satisfied in a sexless marriage, so he encourages her to take a lover. He naturally assumes she’ll choose someone from their own class, and will be discreet. If she has a child he’ll recognise the child as his own.
Unfortunately when Connie does take a lover, he chooses someone very unsuitable indeed. Their gamekeeper. Mellors is uneducated and somewhat uncouth, but he’s a hunk and his roughness clearly excites her. Having a sexual relationship with a servant is quite bad enough, but Lady Chatterley compounds her sin by falling in love with him. Inevitably they can’t keep the affair a secret forever, and the situation threatens to blow up when Mellors’ estranged wife shows up at the estate. And proceeds to tell everyone in the district, in graphic and colourful detail, what her husband and Lady Chatterley have been getting up to in the gamekeeper’s hut. The affair will of course have fateful consequences not just for Connie and Mellors but for Sir Clifford as well.
While Connie has been gaily coupling with the gamekeeper a bitter strike has been going on in the mine owned by the Chatterleys. Sir Clifford is a firm believer in keeping the working classes and the servant classes in their place, with brutality if necessary. Both Lady Chatterley’s affair and the strike provide the opportunity for a rather caustic commentary on class relations in 1920s England.
Joely Richardson is exceptionally good as Lady Chatterley. Sean Bean is all rugged manliness as Mellors, but mixed with a surprising degree of tenderness. Even more than her ladyship he realises the foolhardiness of what they are doing, but both are swept away on a tide of lust and love and are unable to stop themselves. James Wilby does well in the very unsympathetic role of Sir Clifford. And Ken Russell plays a minor part himself, as Connie’s father. Hetty Baynes is amusing as Connie’s sister Hilda, a flapper who is very open-minded indeed about sex but not the least bit open-minded about it when it crosses class barriers.
The sex scenes are tame by movie standards but fairly racy by television standards. They’re done tastefully though. The big advantage of the mini-series format is that it’s a long time before their first actual sexual encounter occurs, and in the meanwhile the sexual tension between them becomes almost unbearable. The chemistry between Richardson and Bean is superb.
If the series has a fault it’s perhaps that it romanticises the working class just a little, while presenting the propertied class in the person of Sir Clifford as being a bit two-dimensionally wicked.
I’m not generally a big fan of BBC costume dramas. They always look superb, and this one is no exception. The sets, the 1920s cars and the clothes provide a feast for the eyes made even more appetising by Ken Russell’s very considerable visual flair. But on the whole I find these BBC adaptations to be a bit too much in awe of the material, too conscious of the fact that they’re dealing with Great Books, and this over-respectfulness often results in series that are beautiful but lifeless. Luckily there’s no danger of Ken Russell’s being excessively in awe of any source material. And he has a genuine affinity for D. H. Lawrence’s works. As a result this production is considerably more entertaining and more lively than most of these programs. I don’t even like D. H. Lawrence very much, but I do enjoy D. H. Lawrence done by Ken Russell.
It’s unfortunate that Region 4 audiences were not deemed important enough to get the extras that are included on the overseas releases, but the series itself is outstanding and I recommend it very highly. It’s lush and very romantic, but it has a political edge to it and it’s consistently entertaining. This is Ken Russell in very romantic mood indeed. It doesn’t have the excessiveness that characterised his 1970s movies but it does have plenty of Ken Russell touches. It’s really very very similar in feel to Women in Love. And of course it’s visually gorgeous.