Having not read any of the books, I entered the cinema both literally and literarily in the dark. I was fully expecting 50 Shades of Grey to be a tantalising guilty pleasure and therefore I wasn’t especially disappointed. But nor was I sufficiently tantalised.
It starts off relatively well. Virginal, ‘plain-Jane’ student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) earns her degree in chemistry with businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) upon interviewing him for the school newspaper. Sparks fly, banter is traded and director Sam Taylor-Johnson quickly establishes their connection. Connection leads to a contract, and a contract to conflict. It all happens very efficiently.
Dakota Johnson exposes herself to be an actress of great likeability and charisma. In her hands, Miss Steele is playful, inquisitive, and spirited, and certainly someone with whom you can sympathise. Her reactions upon seeing the Red Room and her subsequent hesitance are all credible, and she lends Ana a believability and vulnerability that make the film fundamentally engaging.
Jamie Dornan meanwhile flexes more than his muscles, and whilst the enigmatic Christian Grey is a harder character to pull off, he does it convincingly and with a roguish twinkle in his eye. I’m sure there’s a high percentage of the female population that would have a hard time refusing him. And that’s exactly the point – this is a character you have to believe is irresistible. Despite a tremulous American accent and occasionally frustrating moodiness manifesting itself in tortured piano solos, Dornan’s Grey is undeniably alluring.
However, 50 Shades is ruinously rooted in the cosmopolitan, and the fantastical. Rather than daring to explore a boundary-pushing sexual relationship, this film is all about surfaces.
From the glassy exterior of the Grey skyscraper and the reflective sheen of the piano, to the two incredibly toned and titillating leads, it’s a sexy-looking cinematic morsel that lacks the depth (oi oi) to really satisfy your appetite.
The sexual encounters themselves are heavily edited and softened, with the minimal whipping action actually slow-motioned to presumably mitigate the flesh-grazing, wince-inducing effect. It’s as if Christian is feather dusting, rather than dominating Anastasia. Indeed the only one gasping is ‘the submissive’ herself. It’s diluted, mainstream entertainment and in a cinematic climate that is capable of producing Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Nymphomaniac and Secretary, 50 Shades comparatively feels a bit nebbish, censored and well, grey.
In fact, I would argue that the dialogue is more grimace-worthy than the S+M itself. Some of the quips are cutesy, and incited a stray giggle. Others are just plain awful. I can’t imagine how hard it must’ve been for Jamie Dornan to say ‘I don’t make love, I fuck hard’ with a serious face.
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel has done an admirable job of making a verbose and grandiloquent piece of literary garbage come across as relatively plausible and genial (though no-one is buying that two students could live in such a chic apartment). However, her wrists appear to be the ones bound when it comes to full creative license, and the exposition is as clunky as Ana’s leather boots.
Because of the triadic nature of this narrative, the first instalment has a sense of feeling incomplete and somewhat under-baked. In its attempt to set the stage for Round 2, 50 Shades of Grey as a standalone film does itself an injustice and ends on rather a bum note. It inevitably feels like the foreplay to a main attraction, and whilst in some instances that makes for a sensual and sporadically comic film, I can’t help but affirm Ana’s desire for more.
In terms of the feminist, domestic violence related backlash against the film, I would argue it’s somewhat unfounded. Taylor-Johnson has coated her film in a high-gloss sheen, where everything takes place between luxuriously silky sheets. Yes, this could raise issues of elitism and whether as a society we’re more willing to accept or pander to the fetishes of the rich – certainly if a blue-collar Bill came after Ana brandishing a flogger, she might not be so receptive. However I would take more issue with the scenes if they had been depicted grittily and alluded to something infinitely more depraved and sordid.
Furthermore, Ana asks to be enlightened. She is invited into Christian’s world, and she willingly consents. I recognise that we should challenge and critique entertainment and ideologies that perpetuate patriarchal control over women, but I think naysayers are attacking the wrong cultural iteration of female sexuality. If they wish to boycott something on the grounds of its depicting of violence towards women, look at Grand Theft Auto 5.
It’s also incredibly refreshing to have a film helmed, scripted and conceived by a completely female trio. Whilst the film suffers artistically, it has been an overwhelming commercial success and will hopefully set a precedent that allows women greater opportunities in the film industry.
Verdict: In the capable hands of the two Johnson’s, this is an incredibly watchable (albeit tame) depiction of the international bestseller. Though it’s nothing to scream about, I doubt you’ll be shouting ‘Red!’ either.