Perhaps appropriately, given its subject matter, Fifty Shades of Grey feels like two, distinct films grappling for dominance over the screen: one, a sensual and stylish romance about a young woman on a path of self-discovery, both in and out of the bedroom – and the other, a numbingly explicit Harlequin bodice-ripper brought to life, better suited for Cinemax’s late night library than the multiplex.
Unfortunately, the lesser one of the pair ends up on top, no doubt due to the creative stranglehold in which author E.L. James held director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel throughout the adaptation process, meaning that viewers get to be teased and titillated – then totally turned off (not to mention left with a severe case of blue balls, thanks to an anti-climactic ending that calls to mind an arcade game’s “Insert More Quarters” display). In other words, Fifty Shades of Grey is a victim of behind-the-scenes drama, neither the glossy and intriguingly tragicomic tale of dangerous sexual politics Taylor-Johnson tried to make, nor the thoroughly smutty romance James clearly felt her story worked better as. Instead, it’s the limpest, most colorless hybrid of the two possible.
Any true movie lover will detest James for holding a talented director back in her own little, pathetic show of dominance, though it’s possible that some fans of the book may have lusted after an adaptation that, on the contrary, existed solely to allow for visualization of the author’s most salacious sentences. That’s for them to report. The fans already spoke once, back in the summer of 2012, turning James’ novel into the fastest-selling paperback of all time, which suggests more readers share her fixation with raw sexuality than would like to admit.
Still, after journeying to the nearest cinema, many will likely make the disappointing discovery that it all just seemed so much better – not to mention hotter – in their heads. To make a direct adaptation of a pornographic novel, after all, is really just to make porn. A truly erotic drama, which Taylor-Johnson may have been making before James laid down the law, is as careful about what it doesn’t show – what it chooses to withhold, leaving the viewer’s ever-fruitful imagination to fill in the blanks – as what it does.
There’s no denying this about Fifty Shades of Grey, as well – no matter how supple its actors’ bodies, romantic its lensing or steamy its soundtrack, it all seems a lot more sinister up on the screen. That’s not a bad thing, to be clear. James’ readers got their rocks off to enticing visions of virginal college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) receiving a vigorous sexual education from devilishly handsome, sexually sadistic business magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), but the film doesn’t conceal the troubling darkness of its source material’s basic premise.
James’ trilogy imparted some terrifying and reckless messages – that sexual violence is permissible in relationships so long as both parties give permission (Anastasia’s utter lack of sexual experience to draw upon makes her surrendering to the more experienced Christian particularly bothersome), that handsome men with boatloads of cash can be as predatory as they want without consequences, that all people who practice BDSM are “fifty shades of fucked up,” and (worst of all) that one should stick with emotionally manipulative, sexually abusive lovers because they might be good boyfriends if you really work at them.
Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t right all of those wrongs, but it at least highlights the creeping menace of Christian’s dominance, along with Anastasia’s heartbreak and horror as she realizes just how monstrously vicious Christian’s vicious streak really is. Their relationship – or “business arrangement,” as he might prefer to call it, seeing as Christian recoils from romantic stuff like a vampire from garlic – is not a healthy one in the slightest.
In part, the movie’s decision not to place rose-colored glasses over the lens with regard to its characters’ game of sexual cat-of-nine-tails-and-mouse is why it doesn’t work as a steamy romance. The soundtrack, including a Beyoncé track that’s sexier than anything in the film, can sonically fog up the windows all it wants, but there’s a deep discomfort in watching a clearly damaged man push an inexperienced, insecure woman (who desperately wants him as a normal, loving boyfriend and is submissive to him more for that reason than any other) out of her sexual comfort zone no matter how uneasy she feels about the situations. Consent is sexy. Control, or at least the lopsided and messed-up kind Fifty Shades has, just isn’t.
As a result, the ‘erotic moviegoing experience of the year’ fails to live up to the hype that preceded it. If it hadn’t borne that restricting label, Fifty Shades of Grey may have proven less disappointing, especially given that it boasts an absolutely stellar performance from Johnson. Bravely baring all throughout the film, the actress builds a likeable, occasionally assertive protagonist, both smart and spirited, out of a character who was neither on the page (fear not, Anastasia’s oft-used “Holy crap!” was left out of the script – though Christian does do battle with the absolutely cringeworthy “Laters, baby” line a few times). With a lesser actress, Fifty Shades of Grey would have been unbearable. With Johnson, it’s intermittently absorbing and unexpectedly amusing in places, because the actress brings a laudably self-aware comedy to some key scenes.
Dornan has considerably less luck, nailing Christian’s holier-than-thou mystique and slick appearance but never evolving into the complicated, multi-faceted protagonist he might have. His chemistry with Johnson, too, is occasionally less than red-hot, though the two of them typically make do with what they have. If nothing else, the actor disappears in a part that should have been much more strongly written. And he does look damn good in those suits.
The other performance worth noting is Taylor-Johnson’s direction, as sleek as a black-and-white perfume ad but with a minimalist touch that renders every surface (especially the leads’ porcelain features) smooth as silk. Though her struggles with James over the content of the film are obvious in its final form, at least the author had the decency not to muffle a striking visual storyteller. The script is a different story, as noted.
Fifty Shades of Grey, in the end, is a messy affair, cursed with a fatally conflicted tone and further bogged down by a poorly told story and occasionally laughable dialogue. Despite Johnson, Taylor-Johnson and (to a lesser degree) Dornan, it’s too morally dubious to beguile and narratively clunky to entertain, even when taken as a light-hearted exploration of forbidden desire. For a movie that questioned its potential audience about their curiosity, teasing and tantalizing them into their seats, Fifty Shades of Grey just has dismayingly little up its sleeve. Who could have guessed that, dragging on at almost two hours, a movie like this would stultify more often than it stimulates? What a buzzkill.
Fifty Shades of Grey feels like two, distinct films grappling for dominance over the screen: one a sensual and stylish romance, and the other a numbingly explicit Harlequin bodice-ripper brought to life. Regrettably, the latter and lesser of the two ends up on top.