Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Writer: Kelly Marcel
What can I possibly say about Fifty Shades of Grey that hasn’t already been said? The discussion surrounding this film and the book it’s based on has been so heated and so scandalous that it has been pretty much unavoidable for the past couple of years. Much of the controversy surrounding the book is of course centred on the infamous sadomasochistic sex scenes, which are so explicitly and graphically detailed that the novel has often been described as pornography attempting to pass itself off as an erotic romance. Many readers have objected to the portrayal of BDSM and view the book as a disturbing account of sexual violence. Feminist critics have denounced the book for being misogynistic and for trying to romanticise an abusive relationship. Literary critics have also criticised the book for just being plain bad. In spite of these criticisms the books have proven to be wildly popular and successful, topping bestseller lists around the globe. It was only a matter of time until Hollywood would try to cash in on the books’ success.
I will say this for the film; it was always going to be an uphill battle for the filmmakers. Kelly Marcel and Sam Taylor-Johnson were faced with the task of taking a controversial, scandalous, often-ridiculed novel, and adapting it into a serious film. The subject matter alone is difficult to portray in a film without it coming across as awkward or silly (although Steven Shainberg and Erin Cressida Wilson proved that it could be done when they made Secretary). On top of that, this film bears the burden of being a widely released film that was directed by a woman, written by a woman, centred around a woman, starring a woman, based on a novel written by a woman, and targeted primarily at women. Such a thing is incredibly rare for the male-dominated industry that is Hollywood (Twilight is the only other recent film I can think of right now that was released under such circumstances) and so it is unusual, and perhaps even unnerving, to see a mainstream film with such a resounding female perspective. This film certainly deserves credit for that, if for nothing else. Unfortunately there really is nothing else.
Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a shy, timid, young girl whose life changes when she meets the handsome, affluent, domineering Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). The two become attracted to one another when the film follows the Twilight method for building chemistry by having the male love interest brood at the female. The attraction only grows as Christian doggedly pursues Ana by showing up unexpectedly at her job and giving her rare and expensive gifts. So overwhelming is their attraction to each other that Christian eventually invites Ana to share in his sexual appetites. He reveals that he has a taste for sadomasochism, in which he likes to assume the dominative role, and asks Ana to join him as his submissive partner. In exchange for her submission, he promises to be utterly devoted to her. The rest of the film is Anastasia trying to decide whether or not this is a life that she wants for herself.
This film is not as laughably bad as I was expecting it to be, but it is still bad. It’s probably unfair for me to say that I did not expect to like this film but, with all the publicity that the film has received, it was impossible for me to avoid any pre-conceived notions. However I was surprised to find that I did not dislike it for the reasons that I thought I would. Based on what others have told me about the books, I was expecting a film that would fail hilariously at being sexy through the use of corny dialogue and over-the-top sex scenes. However I did not end up finding the film’s awkwardness to be amusing. Nor was I unnerved by it. I was expecting this film to be quite uncomfortable to sit through as I anticipated graphic sex scenes like in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Instead the film’s sex scenes turned out to be (relatively) tame, opting for the eroticism rather than the shock-value. In the end what made this film so unenjoyable for me was that it was exceedingly dull. I was bored out of my mind by the one-dimensional characters, the bland dialogue and the tiresome story.
Anastasia is a very uninspired protagonist who barely exhibits a personality. Christian is the film’s attempt to create a Byronic romantic lead but whatever sort of hidden depth he might have possessed is glossed over. The film is trying to convince the audience that the two of them share a romantic bond, but there is nothing there. The film expects us to believe that Anastasia is enticed by Christian for the abusive behaviour he exhibits outside of the bedroom such as stalking her, showing up uninvited at her house, and selling her car without telling her. Meanwhile Christian is shown to be so devoted to Ana that he breaks rules that he has never broken with any other girl such as sleeping in the same bed as her and going out in public with her. Yet it is never made clear why he is so drawn towards her. He has apparently never felt as strongly for any of the fifteen women who came before as he does for her, but he never explains what it about Anastasia that he finds so special. The lack of any sort of chemistry between them means that the love story this film is trying to tell falls flat.
Having written all this I feel I should acknowledge that, as a man, I realise that I am not a member of this film’s target audience. I appreciate that a lot of the fans of the book and the film just enjoy it for the fantasy. I can sort of understand why and watching it for that reason is fair enough. That doesn’t make it a good film though.