The film series based on E.L. James’ ludicrously successful erotic novels draws to a close with Fifty Shades Freed. Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan return as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, respectively, now married, as depicted in the flashy pre-titles sequence.
Their subsequent honeymoon encompasses Paris, the French Riviera and all the lifestyle-porn director James Foley can throw at the screen (and this is only the first fifteen minutes). It’s clear no expense has been spared. But then, these films have never failed at using lavish visuals and seductive, mid-tempo ballads in an attempt to distract audiences from the emptiness that lies beneath.
The couples idyll is interrupted by a fire at Grey Industries, started by Ana’s old publishing boss Jack Hyde. Oh, the drama! And so, from here, the film attempts to loop in a thriller sub-plot, complete with car chases, high stakes bank withdrawals and even the kidnapping of Rita Ora in the wig she wears to play Christian’s sister Mia. These elements are all picked up and dropped at a whim by screenwriter Niall Leonard (who also happens to be E.L. James’ husband), while Christian and Ana try to build a relationship that extends beyond their initial S&M contract. It doesn’t even feel like a film at the best of times, more like an advert for an expensive perfume brand that runs to a little under two hours, with assorted sex toys and comfy blankets and throws for Ana to wrap herself in.
In her role as Ana, Johnson has always been the best part of these films. Her eye rolls and sarcastic responses are playful, almost as if she knows vacuous this all is but may as well have some fun anyway. The opposite can be said for Dornan, who’s had more than enough than he can take. Unlike the first and second films, he’s not even feigning interest here as his performance is a million miles away from the ones delivered in The Fall and Anthropoid, where he proved that he can in fact act. The other players fit into the story where needed, but there’s little attempt by Leonard to make their characters worth caring about, which makes any side-plots (for example, Kate’s worries that Elliot is cheating on her with stick thin architect entirely meaningless).
Fifty Shades Freed feels in many ways vastly different to the first film, which Sam Taylor-Johnson was able to imbue with spirit and a welcome depth to E.L. James’ prose. Now, two films on and any semblance of perception has been stripped away to the point where Christian seems to have miraculously overcome his harsh childhood and Ana has lost her independence almost completely. Instead, we’re left with a film that’s bland rather than bad, wasteful of talent and time. The series should be celebrated for how it’s reintroduced sex into the mainstream. But when it’s presented on a plate this dull and unmemorable, it’s hard not to think of what could have been had someone else been handed the reigns.
Jamie Neish | @JamieNeish