Universal Pictures/Focus Features
Sam Taylor-Johnson has done the best she possibly could with the tools afforded to her. Although author E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey book series may be a bonafide global phenomenon, getting her ostensibly sexy and slap-happy narrative to the big screen hasn’t been easy, thanks to detractors who have long balked at the source material’s perceived quality and an intended leading man who dropped out late in the game. Still, there’s been little concern that that the final product would be a hit, even if a fraction of book buyers turned out to see it.
Fifty Shades of Grey will make millions, but that has little do with its actual worth as a feature film which, despite Taylor-Johnson’s obvious talent and desire to make the outing work, isn’t so much laughably low as simply middling. A criminal lack of chemistry between its leads and an almost baffling inability to recognize its painful messaging about consent and abuse chip away at its entertainment value, and a flat and flaccid pace ultimately turns it something still worse than uncomfortable: actually boring.
The film also lacks much in the way of plot. Ostensibly, it’s about an awkward college student (Dakota Johnson) who develops a crush on a handsome businessman (Jamie Dornan) who attempts to woo her into a BDSM relationship. Clumsy, innocent Anastasia Steele doesn’t want that sort of thing, however, she wants a normal romantic connection with the dashing millionaire who seems to think that staring at women is a viable method of ensnaring a mate. Christian Grey’s appeal is obvious – at least to an inexperienced woman like Ana – and that she wants to love him (and change him) is understandable enough. What shy virgin wouldn’t want to make a rich, handsome millionaire love them?
The real dream of Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t that some average girl who will find some rich, sexy millionaire who wants to whip her and chain her up, it’s that she’ll find the one who doesn’t.
But that’s essentially the entire thrust of the film: Ana wants one thing, Christian wants another, they go back and forth, occasionally having sex in increasingly complex ways. Although both make their desires plain enough, only one character is so damaged that they’re unable to respect the wishes of a person they claim to care about, instead opting to feed their own desires. Christian attempts to (literally) contract Ana in a dominant/submissive relationship, but he consistently flubs his own rules and sends her mixed singles as to what he really wants. No wonder the girl is so confused and doe-eyed most of the time. She just wants to love him, and Christian’s frenetic actions make it seem possible. But why would you want to?
Most of Ana’s worst tics from James’ novels – her clumsiness, her awkward phrasing, her insistence on talking about her “inner goddess,” a consistent desire to classify things in varying degrees of “crap” – have been stripped from her, thanks to a screenplay by Kelly Marcel. That certainly aids Johnson in her performance, and she is often quite charming as her befuddled protagonist. She’s a real find.
Dornan mostly looks ashamed when it comes time to get down to brass tacks – brass handcuffs? – and his Christian rarely appears to take much joy in the one thing we’re repeatedly told that he actually relishes (Christian’s principal personality traits appear to include “moody,” “rich,” “fucked up,” and “into kinky sex,” a boring and overdone combination made still worse by his consistently bad attitude). Dornan’s performance is never able to rise above the actor’s obvious pain and embarrassment at his role, and his repeated grimaces rob most scenes of their intended emotional impact, be it sexy or painful.
The pair exhibits a lukewarm chemistry, feat enough considering that their first meetings are punctuated by Ana acting like a gutless moron who can’t even stand on her own two feet and Christian making bad, flat jokes that make him sound like a serial killer (if Taylor-Johnson one day revealed that she asked Dornan to act like a serial killer during the film’s first hour or so, I would believe her and laud Dornan for his performance). Still, things never quite spark between them, and Johnson is left doing the heavy lifting while Dornan looks pained almost without pause.
At one point, Christian announces, “I’m not going to touch you until I have your written consent!” Sure, that sort of declaration might get some people going, but Ana – who, at this point, still doesn’t know what sort of kinks Christian is into, including his unyielding desire to have her sign a contract just so he can fuck her while ensuring she can’t look him in the goddamn eyes – just seems confused. Mere minutes later, Christian gasps, “Fuck the paperwork!” and madly makes out with Ana in a hotel elevator.
Christian is desperate for Ana to agree to be his submissive, and although his position as dominant makes it sound like he’s the one in charge, the real trick of such BDSM relationships is that it’s the submissive – the one who draws the lines, sets the limits, and can say no – who holds all the cards. Too bad then that Christian is wholly unable to listen to or respect Ana’s wishes, using sex as a weapon throughout the film to get his way. That’s romance? That’s sexy?
And Ana says no to him a lot, but even her careful consideration of every aspect of their proposed deal means nothing to Christian, and he continues to seduce her and play on her emotions to get her to do what he wants. Midway through the movie, Ana asks Christian how many women he’s contracted into a BDSM relationship – turns out, it’s a relatively high number, one that (with a little basic math) indicates that Christian’s ability to keep a mate, even one bound by actual legal documents, isn’t particularly good. So much for those carefully considered contracts and swanky gifts.
This is something worth noting, and noting repeatedly: Ana never signs that contract. No matter what Christian says or does, the two are not in an official dominant/submissive relationship, which means that Christian really is just a bullying, boorish boyfriend. Try hiding that behind paperwork.
Fifty Shades may be the kind of material than can introduce whole swathes of the world to the BDSM lifestyle, but it also does it incorrectly and disrespectfully. Different expressions of sexuality are freeing and complex and worth exploration, especially as told through artistic means, but whatever Fifty Shades is about isn’t BDSM. It’s assault and manipulation. It’s also not loving, and it’s really not sexy. This is a problem that stems from the source material, to be sure, but it’s also one that highlights just how little thought has gone into the most basic elements of this supposed “love story.”
The Upside: Dakota Johnson’s often very charming performance, solid soundtrack.
The Downside: Jamie Dornan’s inability to engage with the material, unsexy sex scenes, lack of chemistry between the leads, weak source material, massively uncomfortable messaging about sex and consent.
On the Side: Rita Ora apparently learned French for her role as Christian’s sister. She has four lines in the film. One is in French.