With Fifty Shades Freed, the third and presumably final entry in the Fifty Shades films based upon the novels by E.L. James, the newly married Ana (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan) finally start to live into the spark that ignites their unique, and up to now wholly abusive and unjustified, relationship as returning helmer James Foley's trilogy closer discovers a playfulness and mutuality that at least starts to explain why millions of readers and moviegoers have embraced a story that has dragged us through the mire and the muck of Christian's traumatic past and underlying seething rage that has always seemed not that far away from both his "romantic" and not so romantic encounters with his lovely submissive now turned wife.
Fifty Shades Freed still isn't a good film, but it's almost satisfying solely because it's also not the awkward and uneven Fifty Shades of Grey nor the just plain godawful Fifty Shades Darker, both films that struggled to find, okay failed to find, the true spark between Ana and Christian and exploited the kink in the story without ever providing a payoff.
The simple truth is that Ana and Christian are still wholly unconvincing in their coupling, displaying the kind of chemistry one might have expected from Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin once their conscious uncoupling began to unfold. It doesn't help that neither Jamie Dornan or Dakota Johnson are stellar performers, though one must admire, in particular, Johnson's growth as a performer throughout the series and her ability to find at least forty shades of her own character.
However, Fifty Shades Freed is finally a Fifty Shades film that stops taking itself so damn seriously, the presence of light, if not quite laugh out loud, humor throughout the film a welcome dip into humanity and a healthier, if still entirely unbelievable, relationship that begins to give hints of the fantasy roots of this larger than life story.
In an early scene, the recently wed Ana hints at this newfound playfulness with a previously unseen open and even public defiance of Christian's authority that results in Christian's not so gentle inquiry "Why do you defy me?" that earns the snide response from Ana "Because I can," a quiet and playful response that fuels the intensified passionate response rather than, as in films past, simply an intensifying of the bondage and dominance.
In other words, Fifty Shades Freed offers hints of being an equalizing film, a hint where Ana asks for, but never quite demands, a certain level of respect within the relationship and within the framework of what is becoming their married lives. It's evident, quite vividly and joyfully, in Ana's encounter with an architect hired to design their new home who pays a not so subtle price for crossing relational boundaries. It becomes clear that Ana's assertiveness in the scenario is as much a turn-on for Christian as the dominance that has, well, dominated the story up to now.
Fifty Shades Freed is the first film that seems in touch with the fact that this material is completely and utterly ridiculous, E.L. James's horridly simplified dialogue and story structuring often resembling the kind of storytelling one might expect as a young high school enthusiastically journals the loss of their virginity with a purple pen and smiley faces. It's devastatingly horrid writing, though Fifty Shades Freed at least begins to explain its otherwise inexplicable popularity and scribe Niall Leonard, working from James's third book, finds ways to breathe life into the story.
While the relationship between Ana and Christian becomes more mutual and satisfying without losing the kink that remains misunderstood for those who've never experienced it, the simple story contained within Fifty Shades Freed remains frustratingly paper thin. In the first two films, the sex between Christian and Ana had a sort of lifeless pomposity as every encounter was weighed down by Christian's inability to move past traumas out of present relationships. For Christian, up to now, every sexual encounter has been treated as a coping skill and Ana inexplicably serving as the willing martyr upon whom Christian could inflict all sorts of abuse and degradation that far transcended any framework of a BDSM relationship. In Fifty Shades Freed, there are glimpses, only glimpses, of exactly why Ana has chosen to endure the relationship even if the acting is still so weak that most of us will still be nodding our heads going 'It's the money."
I've often gotten the feeling that with stronger performers that the first two films in the Fifty Shades films would have and could have made a lot more sense, but neither Dornan nor Johnson could ever quite find the range needed to make it all convincing. While Fifty Shades Freed isn't at all satisfying as a stand-alone film given its reliance on pieces of plot from the first two films, this is a film where the relationship, at least to a certain degree, begins to make sense and that believability could likely stand alone and apart from the first two films.
In Fifty Shades Freed, the sexual encounters are often funny, or at least infused with natural humor, and even in one scene when Christian seemingly reverts to his old, traumatized self it's dealt with in a way that indicates Ana's newfound strength and willingness to push boundaries to create a healthier relationship. While the playfulness is welcome, Dakota Johnson unquestionably lives into it far more convincingly than Jamie Dornan. If there's a problem in Fifty Shades Freed, it's that with the evolving story and the broadening emotional dynamics of the relationship it demands performers able to keep up with the range of those emotions. Quite simply, Dornan can't keep up. He waxes a seriously stoic and obvious sexy figure, and much more of him is seen in this film, but he lacks the emotional range to truly convince us that he's able and willing to be a partner in this relationship's newly discovered territories. Oh, sure, he says all the right words. He just never quite convinces.
There's a side storyline that fuels the conflict in Fifty Shades Freed, a slowly revealed thread involving Ana's vengeful ex-boss (Eric Johnson) and his attempts to exact revenge for reasons that slowly unfold. The entire storyline unfolds in a wonky, ludicrous manner that is more befitting of a soap opera setting than a cinematic release.
Fifty Shades Freed also feels particularly weak and unconvincing in the shadow of the Oscar-nominated and vastly superior Phantom Thread, a film that avoids the kink in favor of the heart n' soul of the story. It's a heart n' soul that has been desperately and painfully missing from the Fifty Shades films but is, at least in modest amounts, hinted at as Fifty Shades Freed clunks awkwardly toward its obvious and easily predictable conclusion projects far more promisingly about a future of which the vast majority of those left watching the film will be far less convinced.
Fifty Shades Freed isn't so much the "best" film in the series as it is the most entertaining and emotionally satisfying, less a cinematic accomplishment and far more resulting from the story finally balancing out and Foley bringing that balance to the big screen without completely letting go of that centuries long fantasy of being swept off one's feet and into a world where every fantasy is fulfilled and those fantasies are only occasionally interrupted by the harsh realities of life.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic