If you would weave together a pinch of the softcore stylings of Red Shoe Diaries, a dab of the hyper-stylized Playboy videos, and ever so slight hints of the naughtiness meets psychosocial intrigue of Secretary or maybe 9 1/2 Weeks, then you may very well have an idea of what to expect from Fifty Shades of Grey, the adaptation of British author E.L. James's bestselling novel of the same name.
Here's the problem. Fifty Shades of Grey really needed at least a splash of American Psycho to really make it all work.
Already having garnered its fair share of controversy, thus adding fuel to its inevitable box-office fire, Fifty Shades of Grey centers around Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, 21 Jump Street and Need for Speed), a sheltered English Lit major on the verge of college graduation when she meets attractive young billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, television's The Fall and Once Upon a Time), whose attraction to Anastasia is surpassed only by his need to control absolutely everything about absolutely every human relationship he's in.
In case you're still wondering, this means that Christian is a "dominant," a BDSM term indicating a role of control within a sexual scene or lifestyle. This also means that Christian is not seeking from Anastasia a traditional dating relationship, after all he doesn't do romance, but is instead seeking for her to be his "submissive," a role in which she would essentially surrender herself to his wants and needs without question.
There are some, particularly those within the faith community, who are already protesting Fifty Shades of Grey loudly. The protests grew even louder after the film's hyper-stylized trailer played during this year's Super Bowl and triggered accusations that the film promotes sexual violence, domestic violence, and the glorification of violence against women.
Alternately, there are some who defend the film just as loudly by stressing the mutual consent within the relationship and, quite simply, the fact that BDSM is both widely popular and widely misunderstood.
There are also those who consider the film as a true depiction of BDSM or even rape fantasy, the latter being an admittedly darker yet existing sexual practice amongst more experienced and extreme practitioners of BDSM.
The simple truth, at least in my estimation, is that the notion of being "swept away" remains an intense fantasy. In Fifty Shades of Grey, being swept away by this attractive, dominating, and filthy rich man is completely enveloping because it touches on the desire to be protected, controlled, safe, and financially secure. The books also, at their very essence, tap into that very basic idea that true love heals everything.
The curious thing, at least to those whose minds work critically, is that practically anyone would openly tell you that Fifty Shades of Grey and its companion books are horribly written. This isn't meant as a slight to James, who has clearly written works of great popularity and cultural relevance, but merely as an observation that a book that started out as Twilight fan fiction doesn't have a particularly brilliant story and does, in fact, contain some of most incredibly insipid dialogue one could possibly imagine.
Fortunately, a good amount of that dialogue did not make its way into this cinematic presentation directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy).
Now then, I'm not completely convinced that you're here to actually read a review of Fifty Shades of Grey, mostly because I'm not 100% convinced that fans of Fifty Shades of Grey can actually read. However, I suppose my film criticism code of ethics demands that I at least attempt to express the experience to be had while watching Fifty Shades of Grey.
To her credit, E.L. James did not write a book that glorifies violence against women or rape or domestic violence. There is a difference between these things and BDSM, though certainly there would be those practitioners capable of drawing a line between the two. Definitely existing within the world of erotica and fantasy, James's novels more fully explore the myriad of issues present within the complex relationship that exists between Anastasia and Christian.
Christian is, in his own words, "50 shades of f***ed up" and incapable of anything resembling a mutually satisfying relationship. Within the relatively short span of a two hour film, it is impossible to fully explore what created Christian and, as a result, we are left to watch a man whose behaviors border on sociopathic, easily cross the line of stalking, are unfathomably controlling and exhibit more than subtle hints of domestic violence. Do I believe this is the filmmaker's intent or the film's meaning? Nope. That doesn't matter. The simple truth is that Jamie Dornan's performance is so incredibly weak that without a full context his Christian Grey comes off as sociopathic rather than seductive, controlling rather than dominant, and frightening rather than fantasy-making. There was never a moment in Fifty Shades of Grey when I bought into this "relationship" nor did I ever buy into Dornan's Grey as a man capable of creating a business empire or commanding anyone's attention let alone their bodies. In fact, I'd dare say that for someone supposed to be a dominant that Dornan's Grey is almost painfully submissive.
Johnson, on the other hand, fares modestly better as Anastasia, oozing vulnerability and yet believably portraying a more confident and, I'll say disciplined, young woman than is ever brought to life in the book. Johnson, the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, gives the film nice moments of lightness and even humor, a welcome touch given that it becomes apparent early on that the hints of darkness will never become more than hints. The biggest problem here, however, is that Johnson's character shifts so quickly and plays off Dornan's so badly that Anastasia ends up looking and feeling like a woman with a raging personality disorder whose back-and-forth histrionics are more erratic than empowering.
If this is love, no thanks.
There's a surprising lack of sex in Fifty Shades of Grey, the film's sensuality defined by a handful of scenes that are vividly brought to life by Seamus McGarvey's lensing but that are surprisingly devoid of the book's more intense scenes. We get a few nude shots of Anastasia, not surprisingly, coupled with a couple butt shots of Christian, a handful of full body scenes from behind, and one hint of pube. In other words, it's fairly typical Hollywood sex with the modest addition of some whips, straps, etc. The scene that may very well be the sexiest is actually devoid of sex, a wonderful back-and-forth experience involving Christian, Anastasia, and a conference table.
The truth is that if Fifty Shades of Grey wanted to really work, then Taylor-Johnson and crew needed to commit to a darker, edgier, and more compelling film. Dornan, whom I can't stress enough is miscast here, desperately needed to tap into Grey's darkness or he needed to pull a Charlie Hunnam and just back out of the project. At several points, I found myself picturing the suave and sophisticated sociopathic behavior of Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman, a characters whose sociopathic nature certainly dominated yet a character who had that edginess that Christian Grey so desperately needs here.
The film's portray of dominance and submission is flaccid at best, with Dornan's Grey being an ineffectual dominant whose techniques reveal vast inexperience despite his claim of the number of women who have been in what he calls his "play room." The "contract" has several major practical flaws and far too often chooses faux style over substance.
It also doesn't help that the chemistry between Dornan and Johnson is woefully lacking, making their flirtations unconvincing and their dominance and submission border on downright creepy and disturbing. The two actors, whom reports have said didn't actually get along during film, simply aren't strong enough yet within their craft to overcome a lack of chemistry and this lacking creates an unbelievable relationship made more unbelievable given the extraordinary circumstances.
The great thing about a film like 50 Shades of Grey, which seems destined to take the box-office crown this opening weekend, is that you, as the moviegoer, should be pretty clear on whether it's a film for you. There's no disguising what it is and what to expect. With the folks at Universal Pictures trying to sell the film as a Valentine's Day Weekend spicy alternative, Fifty Shades of Grey won't likely fulfill any of your deepest and darkest fantasies but it may actually remind you how good you already have it.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic