Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Screenplay by Kelly Marcel, based on the book by E.L. James. Produced by Dana Brunetti, Michael DeLuca, E.L. James. Photographed by Seamus McGarvey. Edited by Anne V. Coates, Lisa Gunning. Music by Danny Elfman. Production designed by David Wasco. Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden.
Fifty Shades of Grey is kinky trash that wants to re-orient itself as a tragic love story, which means it dials down the kink and tries mightily to misplace the trash. To be sure, this long-awaited adaptation of E.L. James’ controversial erotic bestseller (which began as Twilight fan fiction) isn’t exactly chaste, and the most notorious scenes are more graphic than your typical blockbuster. But they’re also timid, and are built in service of a “sincere” romance that, alas, doesn’t actually exist. The result is a slick, well-made drama that’s ultimately as vacuous as its key relationship.
For Dakota Johnson, who plays the virginal heroine Anastasia Steele (yes, that’s her name), the movie is an acting decathlon. It’s hard to think of an actress who has recently been put through an ordeal that could so easily be humiliating or degrading. That she survives practically unscathed is a dual testament to both her skills as an actress and to the notion that she has better things ahead of her. If she tries too hard to quiver her lip and generate heat between herself and multi-billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), whom she meets when conducting an interview for a friend’s journalism school assignment, maybe it’s because Dornan, as Grey, is the ultimate nowhere man. He’s an empty suit, and although he looks good in one (and out of one), there’s no spark, no real human interaction between them. He persistently seems as distracted as Bruce Wayne would at a fundraiser when the bat-signal is fired.
Grey, of course, has a secret: he’s into bondage and sadomasochism, and he’s already eyeing Anastasia as his new playmate, in behavior that is clearly predatory but is meant to resemble genuine affection, or at least a rich man’s simulacra of it. He haltingly pursues Ana, plying her with helicopter rides, cars, priceless gifts and unrelenting attention, but apparently all their moments of human connection happen offscreen. As Anastasia finds herself drawn to this mysterious man, we don’t get enough of his personality to truly understand how she sees him except as a ticket to consumerist fantasyland. Soon he deflowers her, a preamble to his pitch to join him in a bedroom stuffed with bondage apparel, where she will be the submissive to his dominant. He calls it his playroom. “Where you keep your Xbox?” she wonders. It’s tossed off as a joke, but, yes, it is a place where he keeps his toys, Anastasia among them if she signs a complex contract that effectively sells her into sexual slavery.
This becomes a sticking point between the two of them, as well it might; it doesn’t help that Christian is a possessive creep who never met a stalking opportunity he could pass by, even showing up unannounced when she visits family in Georgia, making the visit all about him. To the story’s credit, it does see Christian’s obsessive actions as poisonous and unhealthy, but that is mainly because it purposefully conflates such behavior with the S & M scenes, implying that anyone who participates in such activities must be severely damaged. She staves off signing the contract, but he is fixed on it, and when their relationship reaches a breaking point, we don’t sniffle like the movie wants us to, we cheer because our heroine has finally woken up and smelled the coffee.
In actuality, a lot of emotionally balanced people do all sorts of things behind closed doors, but that wouldn’t fit the story’s Puritanical need to shock us with some of these pretty tame details. The creepy stuff is the contract and Grey’s need for utmost control, not the actual sex. As for the sex scenes themselves, they are done tastefully…far too tastefully for what should be lurid. If you’re going to make a superficial erotic thriller, there’s ways to do it, but not by sounding the unconvincing clarion call of true love. Fifty Shades of Grey wants us to hope that these two work out their issues, but doesn’t give us much reason why we should care. The film inevitably sets up a sequel, but the only one worth making would be the ultimate conclusion of this story, Fifty Shades of a Restraining Order.