Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

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Image: Universal Pictures
Image: Universal Pictures

And so the long-awaited beast rears its ugly head*. The screen adaptation of E.L. James’ bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey has finally rumbled over the hills, to the jubilation of legions of quivering housewives and teenage girls (or so the media would have you believe).

If by some miracle you have managed to avoid this monstrous literary phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey is the story of virginal college student Anastasia ‘Ana’ Steele (Dakota Johnson), who falls into a relationship with enigmatic and emotionally distant businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who famously turns out to have some pretty ‘singular’ interests. We follow Ana as she becomes more involved in Christian’s kinky world of sex contracts, safe words and the notorious Red Room of Pain, and her attempts to understand and navigate this world.

Firstly I must state that I detest the Fifty Shades series. And before you ask, no, it’s nothing to do with the sex – as a student of English Literature, the most offensive thing to me is that such a piece of horrendously-written trash has garnered such a devoted following. Admittedly I haven’t read the series in its entirety; in fact, I could barely get through four pages of the bloody thing without wanting to burn down every bookshop that stocks it, with everyone responsible for its publication locked inside. The novels’ origins as Twilight fanfiction are well-documented, and the deepest recesses of the Internet are where they should have stayed.

Nevertheless, I’m nothing if not open-minded when it comes to film, so when the personnel attached to the screen adaptation was revealed, the project seemed to have some potential after all. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has proved herself a more than capable director with Nowhere Boy and even contributed a short film to the erotic series Destricted in 2006, and screenwriter Kelly Marcel’s last movie, 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, was a wholly underrated affair, charming and compelling in equal measure.

So the efforts of an adept screenwriter and an interesting, independently-minded filmmaker with an artsy background and experience in directing erotica have combined to make… this piece of garbage. I don’t doubt that the pair did their best to create something worthwhile, but reports suggest that E.L. James demanded the inclusion of much of the novel’s original dialogue, and the ever-present shadow of the studio means that every scene looks assembled by committee. It seems all has been sucked into the inescapable, swirling vortex of terror that is Fifty Shades of Grey.

That includes Dornan, lauded for previous performances in projects like The Fall but who can’t manoeuvre within the strict parameters of the thankless role of Christian Grey, whose entire character development can be summed up by a spanking paddle and a designer suit. And it’s no mean feat that the film has somehow managed to make Jamie Dornan – funny, charming, by most accounts grade-A HunkTM Jamie Dornan (he used to be an underwear model, for heaven’s sake) – seem actually rather unappealing, with his disconcerting staring and habit of spouting such twaddle as: ‘I’m fifty shades of fucked up, Anastasia’.

Dakota Johnson, on the other hand, has been largely praised for her performance, something I can’t quite understand. Admittedly she isn’t the worst thing about the movie by far, but the breathless, whispery dialogue and constant ‘who, me?’ giggles are intensely grating after about five minutes, and a Black Keys t-shirt and a full fringe do not a ‘quirky’ and ‘offbeat’ female protagonist make. Also, without detailing too much, I find it incredibly hard to believe that any woman in her twenties who has found herself in a sex contract negotiation, experienced or not, would not be able to figure out the definition of ‘butt plug’ (and even more difficult to imagine any self-respecting English student not running for the hills if a man tried to woo her with a line from Tess of the D’Urbervilles).

The rest of the performances are barely worth a mention, so I’ll skip to what you really want to know about. Now, I’m no prude when it comes to film (I saw Blue is the Warmest Colour in the actual cinema), so I find it bizarre that a movie whose plot revolves so overtly around the topic of sex doesn’t have the balls (ahem) to go all out with it. Every sex scene looks choreographed by at least five studio execs, and the kinkiness has been noticeably turned down a notch or five (a brief, inexplicably slow-motion shot of a cat-o-nine-tails being brandished is about as naughty as it gets). The film is never as unashamed as it thinks it is, embodied most clearly in the oddly squeamish decision not to feature any full-frontal shots of Dornan, despite the fact we see pretty much every square inch of Johnson (her breasts have so much screen time I wouldn’t be surprised if they received their own fee).

There are well-reported controversies regarding the nature of Christian’s treatment of Ana and whether it crosses the lines of BDSM and into abuse. While there are certainly uncomfortable connotations to much of his behaviour, in many ways the film, again, doesn’t have the conviction to deal with the issue in any real way. Style triumphs over substance; approximately 90% of the movie consists of sleek shots of immaculately decorated apartments, twinkling Seattle skylines and Christian playing the piano, yet a startlingly nonchalant admission that he was essentially abused as an adolescent is entirely glossed over. For a more well-rounded and less downright boring portrayal of a dominant-submissive relationship, watch Secretary instead (with James Spader as the original Mr. Grey).

By all means download the soundtrack, which is the best thing to come out of the whole worthless enterprise, but don’t bother throwing your money away on a ticket. If I wasn’t rolling my eyes at the vomit-inducingly bad dialogue I was struggling to keep myself awake, let alone interested in the utterly unbelievable central relationship. A landmark in erotic cinema this is certainly not, but with rumours that E.L. James herself is to pen the screenplay for the sequel, it seems the worst is yet to come.

*(or not, it turns out).

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