‘Fifty Shades Darker’ Embraces the Romance
Less BDSM and more boring sex makes this a weaker, though ultimately more compelling entry in the series.
In February of 2015, the film adaptation of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series was released. Many were quick to jump on the film as a mirror of its source material, which it was not. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, the first film in the series was surprisingly effective. It slashed the novel’s concept of a woman being dominated by her lover and flipped it, placing the female heroine in control. As Anastasia Steele, Dakota Johnson gave a layered performance that has since begun a career for the extremely talented young actress. Jamie Dornan, as Christian Grey, was more difficult to penetrate, perhaps because the writing did not give viewers much to work with in terms of his character.
Dissatisfied with her lack of control and input into the first film, creator E.L. James has since taken back the reins and is now fully in control of the franchise’s future. Kelly Marcel, whose screenplay for Fifty Shades of Grey added depth and intentional humor to James’ thankless creation has been dismissed in favor of new screenwriter Niall Leonard, who just happens to be married to James, who therefore retains full oversight on the latest installation, Fifty Shades Darker. Occupying the director’s chair is James Foley, who some may remember directed Al Pacino’s Oscar-nominated performance in Glengarry Glen Ross. Since then Foley has directed a dozen episodes of House of Cards as well as a few forgettable films. It is instantly troubling to note that this installment in the series was both written and directed by men, whereas the main creative team for the first film was headed by women. Can these two men be trusted to add the depth to Steele’s character that was sorely missed in the novel? Unfortunately not.
The last Fifty Shades film ended with Anastasia finally walking out on Grey. She had continually tried to dissuade his BDSM tendencies to no avail. Giving up, she finally asked Grey to let her have it, which resulted in him exuberantly taking a leather flogger to her backside. Ask and you shall receive, which did not work out too well for Ana. She got dressed and left his apartment, instructing Grey not to follow her. It was a powerful decision, reminding the viewer that throughout the film, Ana was always calling the shots.
Fifty Shades Darker picks up some months (weeks?) later with Ana now working as the assistant to an editor at a successful company. She heads out of work to attend her friend José’s gallery opening. Remember that guy that tried to force himself on an inebriated Ana in the first movie? Well apparently that didn’t come between their friendship. Anyways, José is just as creepy this time around , evidenced by the six massive portraits of Ana that line the walls of his gallery. Ana turns away from the photos of herself to meet the eyes of Grey who has returned ready for true romance. “No rules, no punishments, and no more secrets,” he promises. So, after absolutely no hesitation, Ana is back with the man she so confidently abandoned some undeclared time ago.
Characteristically, this is a massive continuity flaw between the two films. James was publicly dissatisfied by the outcome of her first novel’s adaptation, and she has clearly attempted to right this film of which she has gained creative control. Thus, the strong and empowered Anastasia is no more. Also nowhere to be found is the menacing and brutish Grey as the guy we have here is a bit of a sap. Willing to abandon his BDSM tendencies, working out to the sounds of Sting, and revisiting his childhood bedroom containing a framed poster for The Chronicles of Riddick, is there anything cool left about this guy whatsoever?
Well he does have a lot of money, which the film pushes as his now sole alluring characteristic. Relationship wise, Fifty Shades Darker is essentially starting from a blank slate. It is perhaps this reason that the first half of the film is so messy. It takes Foley and company just a little too long to realize that there is nothing exciting about a bourgeois assistant and a millionaire having slow sex in the missionary position. Then, as the film passes the one-hour mark, things surprisingly start to fall into place.
Grey is boring. The only exciting things about him are his money (he claims to make twenty-four thousand dollars every fifteen minutes) and his proclivity for kinky sex. Aside from some experimentation with some Ben Wa Balls (google it), kinky sex is temporarily off the table. More pornographic than the sex is the way that Foley frames Grey’s wealth. The director seems to be in on the joke when an aerial shot of Grey’s yacht is followed by another aerial shot of the yacht and then another…and another and another. The fun continues in the setup of the series’ villain. Like a superhero origin story, Darker lays out three possible contestants to be the big baddie of the Fifty Shades series. First we have Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of Grey’s former submissives now haunted by her husband’s death. Next there is Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Ana’s boss who after having an icy encounter with Grey decides that he should take Ana for himself. Finally, the greatest of them all comes in the form of Elena Lincoln. Played by Kim Basinger – whose performance in the infamous 9½ Weeks makes her perfect for the role – Elena was a friend of Grey’s foster mother (Marcia Gay Harden) who lured Grey into the world of BDSM when he was a teen.
After an eye-roller of a first hour, Foley finally loosens the restraints and embraces the material’s campy nature. Grey has had enough of the vanilla missionary sex and decides to embrace his carnal side. After binding Ana’s legs, he flips her over and they have sex from behind. It’s a long awaited moment that signals great change for the film. With the uninspired Grey and Ana left behind, things start to take off. Also, with the mystery of the ultimate villain looming, Fifty Shades Darker becomes a rather playful experience. It embraces its fucked up side, especially when it finally acknowledges the Oedipal complex that has haunted Grey’s sex life. With this second hour the events of the film really start moving, approaching an appropriate cliffhanger at a brisk pace. Near the finale, Foley serves up a delicious sequence pitting both Anastasia and Grace Grey (Harden) against Elena, allowing for the three actresses to go full diva.
Taking it in as a finished product, Fifty Shades Darker is a tough cookie. That second half of the film is certainly effective, but it is quite difficult to forgive the first. So is Fifty Shades Darker a good film? I’m not ready to enthusiastically proclaim that. What I can confidently say is that it’s not a bad one. Ultimately, Foley serves up a completely passable middle child that seems to be pointing towards one hell of a final chapter.