E.L. James fans waiting with bated breath need not be disappointed by Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), a perfectly anodyne Mills & Boon-in-cuffs adaptation of the author’s serially denounced book. Anyone else, however, might need to be handcuffed to their seats and wonder how something so wildly popular could be so stiflingly unerotic. Or why all the characters have a six-year-old’s vocabulary. Or whether Jamie Dornan’s hunky Christian Grey, who seems able to turn on at any given moment, should get help for what is surely erectile dysfunction. Keep your hands where we can see them – this is sadomasochism for the multiplex generation.
Dakota Johnson is Anastasia Steele, a gormless virginal college senior whose least vacant expression is to bite her lip while she struggles to think of what to say next. When her flatmate (Eloise Mumford) falls ill, she steps in to interview hot-shot 27-year-old billionaire Armani suit Christian Grey (Dornan) for the college paper. With excruciating dramatic irony, Christian says he likes to “exercise control on all things”, and that outside business, he enjoys “various physical pursuits”. But their interaction sparks something deep in Christian’s secret place that means he simply must be around her. He follows her to where she works – a hardware store, no less – where he shops for rope, tape and cable ties. It would be grounds for harassment if it weren’t all so romantic. Christian, we learn has “singular tastes”, and when he brings her round to his swanky Seattle apartment (E.L. James, incidentally has never been to Seattle) he introduces her to a sub-dom contract. He can do what he likes in his “red room of pain”, and in return, in his words, all she gets is “him”.
It’s so weirdly, curiously set up, with creepy pauses Pinter would have discarded as over-extended, that the whole scenario can’t not be vicariously inviting. In Christian’s world, love means never having to say you’re sorry. It’s a spank instead. BDSM films have plenty of precedents, from Pauline Réage’s The Story of O to last year’s Nymphomaniac (2014), and mainstream arthouse audiences has seen much more explicit sex in Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013). But even cynics will recognise this as a real development in major studio release. Johnson’s Ana is naked frequently, the bondage is upfront, and although we get nothing out of Dornan’s genitalia, he’s at least a strong competitor in cinema’s rear of the year (and in his dom- position, it actually makes sense that we may not see his member).
Dornan and Johnson speak about boundaries with an upfrontness that’s refreshing – her boundaries end at anal fisting, she says, “and let’s make that vaginal too”. But any real character development remains firmly a mystery – Fifty Shades of Grey is feeling its way through virginal territory just as much as Ana does. And goodness, even an improvement on James’ barely-readable novel can’t help Kelly Marcel’s script, which segues from one wooden exclamation to another. “I don’t make love,” says Christian on an early encounter, “I fuck.” Are we meant to be laughing? The actors stumble from one sentence to another in just trying to speak the script, a fact that can’t have been missed by Taylor-Johnson (whose Nowhere Boy was a promising debut). A storyline with Christian’s birth mother (he’s adopted of course) is brought up with groan-inducing clumsiness (“There is a reason” for his sadism, Ana cries). And while the first half has a brisk, upfront approach, the final hour is gobsmackingly dull – with emphasis on the smacking.
Danny Elfman’s score crunches when Dornan moves his hands down to her nether regions, and much of the more atmospheric moments are ruined by incessant mainstream pop from Beyoncé or Ellie Goulding. But the funniest music moment is the opera playing when we first enter Grey’s plush apartment. It instantly reminded of Tom Hanks’ opera scene in Philadelphia (1993) – a film about HIV/AIDS. But far more pernicious than any of the sexual provocations of Fifty Shades of Grey is a fetish for wild riches. While we never learn what Grey Enterprises does (other than “communications”) Christian owns a helicopter, various fast cars, and most irksome, a glider. When Christian explains that he works towards ridding world poverty through his company’s initiatives in Africa, couldn’t he start helping by ditching his private plane? When Christian brings Ana to his apartment, he makes her sign a non-disclosure agreement – scared what he reveals about himself will be an embarrassment for a public figure. For the same reason, filmmakers should staff the multiplexes and on their audience force the same arrangement.
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Ed Frankl | @Ed_Frankl