Genre: Drama, Romance
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora
Those who rushed to prematurely label the Fifty Shades of Grey film as nothing more than a steaming pile of obscene filth should surely be first in line for a firm spanking! It’s true that Sam Taylor-Johnson’s highly anticipated adaptation of E.L. James’ sexed-up soliloquy of S&M is a fundamentally flawed piece of big screen erotica, subject to many of the same problems that made the more sleazy and less steamy novel such a snore. But for all its imperfections, it’s impossible to deny that this is a shamelessly scintillating and scandalously satisfying cinematic experience.
Despite what the title (and the poster) suggests, the focus here is not Mr Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), but actually Miss Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). She’s a naïve and innocent literature student who has been sent to interview Grey; he’s an intense and enigmatic entrepreneur with a billion dollar empire. Naturally, opposites soon attract, and Anastasia finds herself falling further and further under Grey’s commanding spell. There’s a catch though. Grey is a man consumed by the need to control everything, and everyone, in his life. Rather than enjoying an evening of dinner and drinks, he prefers to explore the heights of pleasure through the practice of pain.
It’s curious that Fifty Shades’ release has been scheduled to coincide with Valentine’s Day, a time traditionally reserved for couples to intimately celebrate their love for each another. Because this isn’t really a film that’s designed to be seen by couples in search of something warm and welcoming. Instead, it’s an event that demands and deserves to be experienced by big groups who yearn to be flogged by some flagrant fun.
Kelly Marcel’s regularly witty script draws teasing titters of laughter as it cheekily pokes fun at its own genre conventions and the actual prose it’s adapted from. Loud cheers will erupt and quivering sighs of satisfaction will echo in your ears when either party first flash the flesh, culminating in a climax of hot and heavy breathing when Christian opens the door to his Red Room of Pain. While deep moans of discomfort will slowly surface as Anastasia begins to experience the reality of her suitor’s desire to dominate.
Of course, only time will tell as to whether the flirtatious fever pitch of seeing Fifty Shades in a packed auditorium will transfer to the more personal and private home cinema arena. But with such a potent and playful personality, it’s likely that many will still be happy to embrace it, and rightly so.
Contrary to popular opinion, this is not simply a hollow and laboured softcore porno. Taylor-Johnson has cited Last Tango in Paris as a focal point of creative inspiration, and you can certainly see touches of Bertolucci’s sensual sepia-toned masterpiece in the smooth compositions depicting the central couple’s sexual and sub/dom encounters.
A better comparison however, can be drawn from Steven Shainberg’s superbly unconventional Secretary. Similarly to that film, here Taylor-Johnson and Marcel have admirably tried to depict the stark reality of a BDSM relationship that is at times erogenous and erotic; the heat pulsating from the screen during Anastasia’s first “session” is likely to leave many members of the audiences fiercely flushed. And at others darkly disturbing, the culminating scene of Anastasia being pushed to her limit by Christian at his most punishing being a bold moment of abject brutality.
Despite all of this fun and sexual frisson though, what dominates Fifty Shades throughout are its weaknesses. And inevitably, many of them stem from the E.L. James’ insufferable source material.
Thanks to Jamie Dornan’s finely chiselled features, Christian is a living and breathing embodiment of hot and horny handsomeness. As a character however, he’s barely two-dimensional. While the Mr Grey of Secretary was curious and complex, this one is little more than the walking cliché of a wealthy one-percenter with a little bit of a fetish problem. He even comes complete with a callously convoluted backstory that fails to evoke the sympathy it craves, and spouts a spool of repugnant rhetoric that’s designed but dismally fails to get you hot under the collar. “I don’t make love. I fuck hard,” he says during one particularly misjudged moment that does nothing but exemplify how much of a dull cardboard cut-out character he is.
Indeed, the ridiculously ropey dialogue acts as a restraint to the film from start to finish. None of the characters’ conversations feel natural, much like the various visual metaphors that are shoehorned in at regular intervals with all the subtlety of a butt plug.
The narrative meanwhile, is a persistently stuttering and eternally struggling mess. It essentially consists of one man tirelessly trying to convince his sort of girlfriend to enter into a Sheldon Cooper style contract so that he may punish her whenever he pleases, which eventually descends into another dreary depiction of repressed romance that runs out of steam before reaching a conclusion that’s so stupefyingly sudden you wonder whether Taylor-Johnson had simply decided to give up.
Consistently impressing even when the film is not, it’s Dakota Johnson who manages to hold the whole thing together. Freed of the irritating inner-monologue that plagued the novel, Anastasia is, ironically, the only character with the freedom to develop. Johnson’s performance is one of impressive range, evolving from a shy young student to a confidant adult battling a predicament of not knowing whether to follow her heart or her head. Granted it’s an age-old dilemma, but told through an intriguing character. What a shame then that the story predominantly seems interested in watching her be tickled with a peacock feather, and not considering her thoughts and feelings.
Try as she might, Dakota Johnson never has the chance to hide the scars of Fifty Shades’ failings. As a film, it has more problems than a whip has lashes. And yet despite all the faults, when you’re sat there watching it in the cinema, you can’t help but submit to it.