Fifty Shades of Grey
Part Zalman King soft core, part David Cronenberg mind fuck and all ludicrously misguided, the stylish S&M fantasia Fifty Shades of Grey is being marketed as a young adult love story—just in time for Valentine’s Day—and as such, one wonders just what sort of holiday gift-giving it might inspire.
The story of a naïve, virginal college lass who falls hard for an emotionally damaged billionaire who “doesn’t do the girlfriend thing” but certainly does a lot of other nasty business, the movie adaptation of E.L. James’ trash novel never transcends the source’s narrative flaws, working overtime to add some heat to mostly bloodless proceedings. It’s a well-made movie with a fine performance from star Dakota Johnson, but also a confused one that trafficks in serious subject matter for the sake of a trite young romance that, in the final analysis, feels like a dishonest cheat.
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), the paper-thin plot is a virginal deflowering by way of designer glam bondage and domination as nerdy Portland college student Anastasia Steele (Johnson), falls (literally) into the opportunity to conduct a campus paper interview with twenty-seven-year-old entrepreneurial mogul Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the personification of la dolce vita (we know this because his name is on the outside of the building), a take-no-prisoners alpha male instantly smitten with Steele’s comely, plainspoken girl-next-door. There’s some nice comedy in that opener, Steele out of her element in Grey’s ultra-modern, hard-edged corporate icebox of an office.
A counter girl at the local hardware store, Anastasia is surprised when Christian soon pops by to pick up rope and ties, and shortly thereafter begins courting her in a whirlwind of the sweet life and all the chemistry money can buy, to the surprise of her earthy roommate (Eloise Mumford).
But something in this blossoming romance isn’t quite right, his attentions bordering on overzealous when he shows up at the local nightclub only to punch out her close friend (Victor Rasuk) before whisking her away to the safety of a tony nearby hotel. But that’s just a primer, because before long Anastasia is spirited via private helicopter to his expensive Seattle apartment where she’s promptly relieved of her virginity.
But this is no ordinary love, Christian confiding that he is a “dominant” in search of his latest submissive, offering Anastasia a starring role in his beautiful dark twisted fantasy. After presenting her with a confidential contract detailing a rigid set of rules—what to eat, wear, exercise, how to address him, etc., and the consequences of breaking such rules—she gets a private tour his clandestine “red room of pain,” a sleek BDSM torture chamber with state-of-the-art cuffs, whips, chains and more. Some romance. “I got a rough start in life,” he explains, and though he’ll spank her when required, he won’t share a bed with her. Where most would run for the hills, Anastasia, who has seemed level-headed up to this point, takes the offer under consideration.
A road trip to Savannah reveals Anastasia’s relationship with her distant mother (a radiant Jennifer Ehle), but even this sojourn is interrupted when jealous Christian follows her back home. And later we meet his family, led by campy matriarch Marcia Gay Harden, fully aware of what kind of movie she’s in, and featuring pop singer Rita Ora as his pixyish sister. Neither family dynamic sheds much light into the lovers’ respective predilections.
Like the book, the movie strains credulity, as we wonder why such a nice girl would even entertain such a proposition, and the best the movie can do is suggest that Christian’s extreme wealth has something to do with it, as well as Anastasia’s belief that she might exorcise his dark secrets. And that turns out to be a fool’s errand.
Part of the problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is the casting of Dornan, who lacks the magnetism required for the role. For a character with such “singular needs” and one with such a degree of self-loathing, the actor needs to be accessible, inviting us to understand him with at least some degree of vulnerability or humanity, and that’s missing in Dornan’s performance. Cold, detached and almost expressionless, the actor renders the character untransformed by Johnson’s warmth, though the film tries to tell us otherwise by its groaner of a final scene.
On both the page and screen, Christian Grey seems a world-class creep in expensive, dual-purpose neckties, a stone-faced stalker with deep pockets who may have a sexy body all right, but is, as he says, “fifty shades of fucked up,” perfectly comfortable having an appealing young woman devalue her own needs, perpetrating emotional and sexual violence against her even when she begs for something more. This isn’t the love story it thinks it is, but something much different.
Adapted by a woman from a book written by a woman, and directed by a woman, it’s surprising that the story feels so retro-transgressive in its sexual politics, particularly in today’s P.C. cultural moment. If this is what young ladies today are looking for in a man, something is really wrong. And this movie suggests he is some kind of tortured prince.
Tone is also an issue, Taylor-Johnson lightening the proceedings with humor as if afraid to fully embrace the darkness at the story’s core, probably a necessary function of making it palatable for its target audience. But Fifty Shades of Grey is far flung from movies like Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, Louis Malle’s Damage and Michael Haeneke’s The Piano Teacher, similarly feverish excursions that offer superior portraits of consuming carnal obsessions, treating the subject matter with gravitas and consequence.
Taylor-Johnson wants to have it both ways, straining to incorporate a light touch romantic comedy with scenes depicting cruelty, never quite finding the balance. But perhaps the biggest flaw in Fifty Shades of Grey is that it fails to make the case that Anastasia and Christian are truly in love, though it tries hard to convince us with terrific music and flashy montages, a glossily seductive world of helicopters, mansions, gliders, expensive sports cars and surface rot.
None of this is remotely sexy.