Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
Mr. Grey will see you now.
Few films come with more baggage than Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestselling novel that has been criticized for everything under the sun, including destroying literature and shaming women. Originally starting out as Twilight fan-fiction, titled Master of the Universe — which was published episodically on fan-fiction websites under the pen name of Snowqueen’s Icedragon — the piece was eventually removed due to comments regarding its explicit sexual nature. It was later available on author E. L. James’ own website, FiftyShades.com, and re-worked with its principal characters re-named Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Now a full-blown trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey has become a worldwide phenomenon thanks to its kinky, alternative sexual practices, and with the movie adaptation already under fire from several women’s rights and religious groups — all pleading for the public to boycott the picture upon its release — its difficult for any project with this much controversy to struggle free from the weight of its own chains; kudos to the filmmakers for even trying.
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, Nowhere Boy (2009), Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of Anastasia ‘Ana’ Steele (Dakota Johnson), a tightly wound college senior, nearing the end of her English Literature Course. When Ana’s best friend Kate (Eloise Mumford) becomes ill, Ana saves the day by agreeing to interview the enigmatic socialite, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a millionaire telecom executive, for the student newspaper. The pair are instantly drawn to one another, yet Ana quickly learns that Christian is a psychologically damaged individual, incapable of offering her an emotionally stable long-term relationship. Initially keeping herself at a distance, the innocent and naive Ana, eventually chooses to indulge in Christian’s privileged lifestyle, ultimately falling for his charms. Likewise, unable to resist her beauty and independent spirit, Christian too becomes fixated with Ana. After proposing an unusual sexual request — by asking her for consent to be his submissive, allowing him control over their relationship at all times — Ana hesitates to commit in full but later realizes that if she wishes to have Christian in her life, she must adhere to the demands of his male-dominant sexual sadomasochistic urges.
With substantial talent behind the camera and a faithful screenplay penned by Kelly Marcel, Saving Mr. Banks (2013), the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey fares significantly better than its print counterpart as a few of its outlandish sex scenes have been cut or softened — the notorious tampon scene omitted — while some of the book’s more painful, rudimentary dialogue has been reigned in; alas Christian’s awful line ‘I’m fifty shades of f****d up,’ somehow remains intact. To cater for their female demographic, the filmmakers, in addition, have mistakenly decided to portray Christian as a damaged puppy dog in need of healing, opposed to a thrill seeker with a healthy interest in kinky play, a guy considerable enough to strike an anal fisting clause off his contract; what a top bloke! Nonetheless, Fifty Shades of Grey relies heavily on its smartly groomed protagonist’s connection to somewhat succeed; thankfully leads Dakota Johnson, 21 Jump Street (2012), and Jamie Dornan, Marie Antoinette (2006), have an edgy, ambiguous chemistry, which serves the picture well.
Dakota Johnson grows into her character rather convincingly as the narrative progresses, bringing a semblance of humanity and feisty spirit to Ana — allowing viewers to sympathize with her every step of the way — while effectively navigating through copious nude scenes and clunky dialogue. Johnson also does her best to give Ana’s conundrum a genuine sense of intrigue and her final scenes — where she confronts Grey on the nature of his dominant desires — register a smidgen of suspense. Irish actor Jamie Dornan — who has revealed that he was not the director’s first choice to play Mr Grey — doesn’t fare up quite as well, appearing rather uncomfortable or ‘stiff’ throughout portions of the picture, albeit intentional given Christian’s closed-off nature; Dornan isn’t entirely at fault here as he’s clearly been limited by the character’s narrow scope. The pair do, however, manage to conjure up the right amount of chemistry, exhibiting occasional bursts of fizzy humor whilst interacting; a particular scene where the duo are negotiating the terms of Ana’s sexual contract in Christian’s icy professional meeting room is a sure example of this. Marcia Gay Harden, Into the Wild (2007), and Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), are welcome faces as the couple’s respective mothers, and singer-songwriter Rita Ora gets a cameo as Mia Grey, but Fifty Shades of Grey predominantly operates as a two-header.
From the moment Christian takes Ana’s virginity in a softly lit scene — set against a swooping ballot — the picture displays a willingness to show skin for skin sake, aiming to deliver the titillation promised by its x-rated source material. In spite of this, Fifty Shades of Grey still feels relatively restrained; Christian in particular, seems to do a whole lot of stuff in the ‘playroom’ with his clothes on, while Ana is never shown sweating, straining or climaxing. The sequences in Christian’s ‘playroom’ are well choreographed, hovering on the verge of soft-core, but sadly only offer glimpses into the bigger picture, amounting to nothing other than a teaser trailer for James’ novels. Sure, there are shots of whips, cuffs and blindfolds, but director Taylor-Johnson fails at conjuring up any sort of genuine tension, sexual, sensual or otherwise. What the flick lacks in sexual detail, it makes up for in its celebration of materialism and wealth, as a recurring motif sees Grey silhouetted against an expensive city view from his lavish high rise apartment or spontaneously buying Ana’s affection with gifts, highlighting the riches and luxury he is surrounded and oddly trapped by.
Surprisingly, the one-note flick switches between erotica to fluffy romance — with surprising moments of femininity — thanks to Taylor-Johnson’s female influence asserting itself at certain moments of the film, primarily in Ana’s determination to get the upper hand on Christian. Furthermore, the great work by production designer David Wasco, Inglourious Basterds (2009), and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, Atonement (2007), subtlety reinforces the picture’s title in everything, from the color of the gloomy sky to the wardrobe of Christian’s sleek employees. Perhaps the film’s most redeeming quality is its steamy score, composed by the great Danny Elfman, Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and winning soundtrack, a collection of sultry electro blues pop, featuring top-shelf artists such as Annie Lennox, Beyoncé and The Weekend.
As Fifty Shades of Grey introduced a large number of people to the ways of BDSM — a variety of erotic practices involving dominance and submission, role-playing, restraint, and other interpersonal dynamics — certain individuals have argued that the property romanticizes and glamorizes abusive relationships. I personally believe this isn’t the case with Fifty Shades, as the film simply illustrates one man’s sexual preferences, and who are we to label one’s personal tastes as ‘negative,’ essentially branding it the realm of domestic violence. Additionally, nothing is ever practiced without Ana’s consent, as she is free to leave Christian’s ‘playroom’ at any given moment, if she ever wishes to do so.
While it seemed that the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey was headed for disaster — an offensive joke played on the world at large — director Taylor-Johnson and her adept team have focused on some of the book’s virtues opposed to its faults, crafting a pretty ‘watchable’ picture — it’s problematic and unforgiving dull at times, given its subject matter — but anyone turned off by the very thought of the whole saga might find themselves slightly surprised. Concluding with an abrupt cliffhanger, it’s painfully evident that the world hasn’t seen the last of Ana, Grey or his handy ties.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Fifty Shades of Grey is released through Universal Pictures Australia