Fifty Shades of Grey

Shocker! Film version of E.L. James' kinky bestseller is almost good

Fifty Shades of Grey

Rating Fifty Shades of GreyFifty Shades of GreyFifty Shades of GreyFifty Shades of Grey

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson.
Starring: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Jennifer Ehle, Rita Ora, Marcia Gay Harden, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Luke Grimes, Rachel Skarsten, Callum Keith Rennie, Victor Rasuk, Dylan Neal, Anthony Konechny, Anne Marie DeLuise, Andrew Airlie, Tom Butler, Anna Louise Sargeant.
Written by: Kelly Marcel, from the novel by E.L. James.

Shocker! This film adaptation of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestselling but (largely) poorly-received erotic novel that began life as a piece of Twilight fan-fiction, is not terrible. No, it’s almost good. I know, I know. I was just as surprised. 

Of course, it is what it is and you have to take it on that level: softcore pornography targeted to an almost exclusively female demographic. And while the novels feature explicit sex scenes, this film version offers up precious little of that: with only a few minutes’ worth of nude, writhing bodies that don’t seem to feature genitalia, it’s not even up to the level of a late-night Cinemax skin flick, though the threat of something kinky going on keeps you watching.

No, this is supremely tame stuff, something that may disappoint fans of the novel expecting good trashy fun; every time things heat up, we fade to black and Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love or Elle Goulding’s Love Me Like You Do (or similar) overtakes the soundtrack in place of orgasmic moans. (That soundtrack is actually pretty good, save for a few misplaced pop tunes, opening with Annie Lennox’s I Put a Spell on You and containing Frank Sinatra’s Witchcraft along with some subtle original work from Danny Elfman.)

The film is also a pretty dull affair, with about an hour’s worth of story stretched out to a yawn-inducing 125-minute running time. The ungainly second half – during which we slowly realize the story won’t really be resolved, at least in this installment – is especially tiresome to sit through. 

But here’s the surprise: this adaptation of Fifty Shades is sleek, good-looking affair (shot by Atonement’s Seamus McGarvey) that injects some much-needed humor into James’ source material (Saving Mr. Banks scribe Kelly Marcel penned the adaptation), and is generally well put-together by director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who has a good feel for the material and knows when to pay off with the trashy bits.

Director Taylor-Johnson, by the way, was formerly a Young British Artist alongside the likes of Damien Hirst, and contributed the short Death Valley to the UK version of the arthouse erotica Destricted, which might have landed her the Fifty Shades gig. She made her feature debut with 2009’s John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, and later married that film’s star, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, 23 years her junior.

In Fifty Shades, Dakota Johnson plays Anastasia Steele, a young college grad and English lit major sent to interview wealthy young entrepreneur and eligible bachelor Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) in Seattle when her valedictorian flatmate Kate (Eloise Mumford) falls ill. Steele and Grey strike up… something… and for all the hoopla surrounding the novel’s content, the rest of the film falls into remarkably conventional romantic drama tropes, with the added bonus of talk about anal fisting and genital clamps. 

But it’s just talk: there’s nothing to get hot-and-bothered about here, with all the dialogue about dominants and submissives and close-ups of the generic bondage equipment in Grey’s playroom resulting in precious little on-screen action. Yes, Anastasia gets tied up – with all the kinkiness of a 90s Richard Gere thriller – but the total amount of BDSM content in the film is a single, shockingly tame whipping sequence that serves as the film’s melodramatic Tennessee Williams-esque climax. 

Johnson, the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith who was previously a bit player in films like Need for Speed and The Five-Year Engagement, must carry the weight of this thing on her shoulders, and with a less-assured performance the whole thing would come crashing down. 

But she’s no less than excellent as the definitive mousy brunette (there’s not a single “Holy crap!” uttered here) who incites a passion in Grey’s pants with a nervous giggle and little bite on her lower lip. Baring (almost) everything in front of the camera – emotionally and physically – Johnson transcends the material in a breakout role that will make her a star. The strength of her performance turns this into something that the book wasn’t, and it’s Steele – not Grey’s dominant – who is in complete control throughout the entire film. 

Irish actor Dornan, meanwhile, is more problematic as Grey, fumbling through an American accent and generally lacking the self-assured control that this character demands. He’s buff, handsome, and immaculately-dressed, but also supremely bland. This role needed someone with a Tom Cruise-like charisma; Dornan’s performance (and Marcel’s conception of the character) turns Grey into more of a wealthy weirdo a la Robert Durst or John du Pont. 

Still, that’s what makes the ending of Fifty Shades work so well: finally eschewing the romance tropes, it ultimately delivers a satisfying comeuppance for the Grey character. The only thing that puts a damper on it is that we know future films are coming, and they’re likely to turn that around. 

Many critics of James’ book take issue with the sadomasochistic content, the male-female dynamic, and equate the Grey character with a sexual predator; the only difference between him and a serial rapist, they say, is his fabulous wealth.

This film is an entirely different beast. While the money may be part of the fantasy, the filmmakers here are playing with (and successfully subverting) ages-old stereotypes of gender dynamics, the sex is clearly consensual at every turn, and I don’t think there’s any other way to tell this story. It’s the psychological aspect of dominance and control that appeals most to BDSM enthusiasts – the whips and chains and leather and ball-gags are all well and good, but they lose meaning when the participants feel that it’s all a game. That’s something that Fifty Shades of Grey understands all too well. 

Unscreened for local press, I attended a midnight premiere of the movie with a sold-out crowd that was roughly 95% female; while this thing is as mild as it gets (I wonder how the same crowd would have reacted to Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac), it drew waves of audible titters at all the right moments, with oohs and aahs and giggles filling the theater throughout the 2+ hour running time, even during the long, boring stretches.

How they mined over two hours out of softcore porn in beyond me, but this audience ate it all up with a spoon. And for all the bad things that this movie and its source material might represent, here’s an adult, explicit (if tame), sex-centered mainstream film that’s about to rake in millions on the level of the Twilight franchise. A multiplex shift to more adult topics can only be a good thing. Right..?

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