“Mr. Grey will see you now.” The first feature film adaptation in E.L. James’s kinky S&M-peppered Fifty Shades of Grey series is arriving in cinemas following a whirly promotional blitz that that has elicited fan excitement and more than a few giggles ever since the series was optioned for the big screen nearly three years ago. In that time, a fair number of questions have been raised: How would a movie handle all the explicit sex scenes crafted from James’s indelicate prose? Who could or would possibly step up to play dominant Christen Grey and submissive Anastasia Steele? Could a film version, based upon a property originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction, be any good at all? Well, the film has arrived and there’s plenty of sex (of the R-rated variety) between actors Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson as the star-crossed would-be lovers in shackles. But is it any good?
Well, that’s the harder question to answer. Fifty Shades of Grey, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) and scripted by Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), certainly isn’t a train wreck; nor is it the next camp classic. The film, much like the savvy promotional blitz, with its glossy trailers, remixed Beyoncé songs, and billboards featuring the one-word question, “Curious?”, is more interested in the art of the tease. It’s a come-on, a surprisingly humorous and at times knowingly silly come-on, but that’s about all. Which actually works out fairly well in the first half of the movie, which seemingly invites its audience to share in the absurdity of this warped Cinderella romance as it unfolds. The highest complement to give may be that the filmmakers seem well aware Fifty Shades of Grey is a junk food brand, and while they tart the film with an admirable gloss, the giggles elicited in theaters are mostly intentional.
The story, or the bare bones of the one that exists in Fifty Shades of Grey, is fairly simple. Anastasia Steele (Johnson), mousy brunette English literature student, a modern variant of the Jane Austen mold, all guileless and virginal, is tasked to interview Christian Grey (Dornan), a young industry magnate, for the college paper. Right away, Taylor-Johnson injects a sort of self-aware playfulness in the set-up, almost giving in to the silliness of the material as Anastasia walks into Grey’s pristine Seattle office (full of Hitchcock blonde types at reception) with her sensible sweater and un-brushed hair. When she meets Christian, with his carefully groomed suits and intimating stare, Anastasia literally falls to the ground. It’s that meet-cute moment we’ve seen in countless romantic comedies. Unassuming Anastasia just happens to slip into one containing floggers and whips.
A mutual attraction is cemented, but Christian, “the world’s most eligible billionaire” is an odd one, and not up for playing by the rules of conventional courtship. He’s sort of a cross between Bruce Wayne and American Psycho‘s Patrick Batemen with perhaps a hint of Howard Hughes-level OCD mixed in. Early on, he teases he’s a man of “various physical pursuits” who “exercises control in all things.” After a few not-so-accidental meetings following the interview, Christian proposes to groom an intimidated yet curious Anastasia as his latest conquest – his sex slave basically. Christian, not the warm and fuzzy boyfriend type, invites Anastasia to be gagged and bound, and to participate in countless other sexual activities for Christian’s pleasure. Naturally, this is more a legal agreement than a romantic one, complete with non-disclosure agreements and binding contracts.
There’s actually something in the idea of a relationship developed by contract that enlivens Fifty Shades of Grey and marks the sharper, more playful moments of the film. The best scene of the film finds Anastasia and Christian meeting in a sinisterly lit conference room detailing what’s on- and off-limits. Taylor-Johnson and the actors inject an animated, even gleefully silly aura to the proceedings. The scene, while perhaps a bit too coy (as is the entire movie), gives off a casually endearing sex-positive message and toys with some of the murkier gender politics of the piece as a whole – yes, Anastasia agrees to submit to Christian, but it will be on her terms. While she will agree to being whipped and tied up, Anastasia even wins in the negotiations as Christian promises a one-night-a-week solace from his red playroom in the form a regular date – dinner, movies, and the like.
Fortunately the film is ably anchored by a winsome performance from Johnson, the best part of the entire production. Her Anastasia acts as surrogate to the audience. She’s Alice guiding us through this strange trip through the creepy corridors of Christian’s immaculately furnished bondage-filled Wonderland. Anastasia doesn’t really make a lick of sense as a character, especially in the latter half of the movie where screenplay tends to start and re-start over and over again, but Johnson proves a delightful, empathetic presence. She also proves a nimble comedienne, earning many intended laughs with clipped dialogue that would trip up the most seasoned of performer and supplying welcome measures of spunk, whether flicking her lip or, in one scene, dancing off kilter to a Frank Sinatra standard. As her dominant, Dornan is just as game but comes across a bit too stoic, perhaps even embarrassed. Christian is another character that, as a whole, doesn’t make much sense, but where Johnson creates notes that enliven the on-screen spankings, Dornan seems to retreat and dourly gloom to the side.
The biggest problem of the movie is once the tease is up, there’s not much of a plot to keep things moving along. Christian and Anastasia bump and grind along, safe words contractually agreed, but the chirpy comedy of the first half is replaced by meandering and listless melodrama in the second. Bound by material without much purpose, Fifty Shades of Grey is all dressed up (though sometimes not dressed at all) with no place to go, lumbering through its two-hour running time with a scarce amount of plot. The relationship, itself chained to a sequel-baiting non-conclusion, grows limp even as the sex scenes become darker and more sordid. The film starts to grow repetitive as Anastasia pleads for a normal relationship and Christian broods, anguished by ambiguous circumstances stemming from his childhood. Frankly, it becomes kind of boring. Which may be the best thing for this property after all. This emperor may have no clothes, but he does have a fetching assortment of neckties and multiple uses for them.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
The hotly anticipated Fifty Shades of Grey is no erotic masterwork, but it’s hardly the worst thing out there either. While the sex scenes are numerous, they aren’t all that shocking (that would be a difficult feat in our modern digital age or in a cinematic landscape where Lars von Trier movies stream on Netflix). As a softcore bit of easily digested trash, Fifty Shades of Grey will likely deliver for fans of the book series and non-fans entering the theaters to gawk and giggle away. As a film, it’s a mixed bag – well made on a technical level and gamely performed (particularly by Dakota Johnson), but there’s hardly enough drama to sustain an entire movie, let alone a franchise.