Based on < I >John Thomas and Lady Jane, the second and arguably the best of the three versions of Lady Chatterley's Lover that D.H. Lawrence wrote between 1926 and 1928 (the title is an inside joke aimed at an early reader who suggested he title his scandalously explicit manuscript after euphemisms for male and female genitalia), Pascale Ferran's serious adaptation momentarily reclaims Lawrence's masterpiece from the soft-core realm of YOUNG LADY CHATTERLEY, LADY CHATTERLEY MEETS FANNY HILL and LADY CHATTERLEY IN TOKYO. But while Ferran's mind is far from the gutter, his film lacks Lawrence's spiritual urgency and grand perspective.
Several years have past since World War I left Sir Clifford Chatterley (Hippolyte Girardot) paralyzed from the waist down, and his young wife, Lady Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands), has sunk into a deep depression. A virtual prisoner at Wragby, the Chatterleys' baronial home in the English Midlands, Constance does little more than oversee the staff and nurse her helpless husband. Pale and thin, Constance's worsening condition concerns her sister, Hilda (Helene Filliers), who comes down from her home in Scotland to demand that Sir Clifford hire a proper nurse — say, widowed Mrs. Bolton (Helene Alexandridis) — from nearby mining village Tevershall. Sir Clifford eventually relents and Constance is finally free to leave the house and stroll through the park that surrounds Wragby. While on one of these afternoon jaunts, she spies gamekeeper Oliver Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h), stripped to the waist and washing himself in a basin behind his stone cottage. The sharp contrast between Parkin's naked, proletarian torso and the weak, impotent, upper-class Sir Clifford comes as a shock to Lady Chatterley, who encounters Parkin again several months later as he tends Wragby's pheasants outside the gamekeeper's hut. Parkin can barely disguise his annoyance when Constance asks for a spare key so she may spend afternoons on the hut's porch whenever she likes — Parkin has only just escaped a disastrous marriage to a local harridan and values his hard-won solitude — but her regular visits over the following weeks soften his irritation. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, their mutual, class-based wariness gives way to a sexual desire neither Parkin nor Constance can resist.
Lawrence originally planned to name his last major novel "Tenderness" after his firm belief that England, so shattered and shaken by war, greed and crass materialism, could only be saved by meaningful human contact. This is the theme of John Thomas and Lady Jane, which became far more explicit — and explicitly sexual — in the novel's third and best-known version. But each time any version of the story makes it to the screen, Lawrence's righteous fury and grand, quasi-mystical prescription for his damaged world is reduced to naughty, interclass woodland rutting and naked dancing in the rain. Though nicely shot with a minimum of lasciviousness, Ferran's three-hour adaptation is no exception. Wragby is a stately manor straight out of English House & Garden, rather than a sprawling, suffocating warren teetering on the edge of a coal pit, and sex is portrayed as a means of personal deliverance rather than a universal salvation, leaving Lawrence's admirers still waiting for the film that will finally do the novel justice.
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