Sam Taylor-Johnson steers this knowingly hilarious, better than expected Mills and Bondage, adapted from the terrible E L James “best-seller” – somebody still needs to explain that to me – down a surprising feminist path.
Two surprises; it’s not the anticipated exploitation movie, being rather coy about the S&M; and it’s not flat-out terrible; plus a revelation – Dakota Johnson as leading lady Anastasia Steele rises above the material and will be the next Jennifer Lawrence.
Shy Literature major and professional virgin Anastasia Steele gets to interview young, ripped billionaire Christian Grey; only to find herself on the receiving end of his obsessive attentions. With it come certain fringe benefits; a lifestyle dripping with designer labels, helicopters, sports cars, a twee room in a truly ridiculous couture apartment; and some interesting hobbies – sado-masochism, bondage, flagellation, spanking and rough sex in a designer dungeon.
Except in this movie version, it’s all a bit of fun and a bit tame. Christian Grey is only slightly psychotic in the way that you expect most go-getting young billionaire control-freak entrepreneurs are.
Grey, the abused orphan made good in Seattle’s telecoms industry, is played very grey by Holywood (Ireland) emigre Jamie Dornan. Excellent as the anti-hero serial killer in BBC’s The Fall, Dornan dare not overplay the warped and indeed slightly creepy businessman for fear of sinking into the quicksand of melodrama. He may look the part and gets his shirt off a lot, but he doesn’t have the acting chops to carry this ludicrous character. His dark smouldering presence in The Fall is rendered very lightweight indeed for all that he and Taylor-Johnson have tried to shore up the Damaged Dom. It is quite possible he never recovered from his terrible haircut on day one of shooting. Or his terrible dialogue.
Dakota Johnson, then, has to carry the whole thing as shy student Ana, rapidly losing her bookish, romantic innocence, defying Grey’s rules to play on her own terms for as long as possible.
They could have cast some plastic Hollywood Barbie doll with the body of a porn star, instead they got Dakota Johnson looking like a slightly glammed-up girl next door, gave her a big fringe to peep under and constantly biting her lip. It’s a cute turn backed by some proper straight-down-the-line acting, with or without her clothes on. And she is without for quite a lot of the movie.
Able to give as good as she gets, she keeps the rich weirdo (ironically) dangling on a leash for most of the movie. The best climax is the one without any sex, when Ana completely rules the Sub-Dom contract negotiations in a red-lit conference room. Thereafter, the movie slides inevitably into silliness as Grey’s childhood traumas lead to slightly rougher sex and… the movie finishes with no resolution.
Yes, it’s the start of another franchise, with E L James threatening to write more of the next script herself, meaning the top team of Marcel, Bomback and Marber (Closer) will have to accommodate more of James’ shoddy dialogue.
It’s not a rom-com, and for all it’s scandalous S&M borrowings (much like Madonna borrows watered-down musical genres) there’s no way it can compete with the BDSM on th’Internet, so it settles for more conventional romance with a bit of titillation.
A slightly upmarket version of the 90’s ‘erotic thriller’ genre (they weren’t at all), or the ’80’s ‘bonk-buster’ and not nearly as offensive as Pretty Woman, Fifty Shades is tastefully shot, stamped with a certain self-deprecating humour. Taylor-Johnson subverts the material into a post-feminist liberation tract and sneaks it past the Studio, making a pot of money in the process. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible, it is mildly amusing (especially with Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Grey Hardin playing the mothers) and the hour-fifty passes quickly.
Funniest of all is the number of terms in this review likely to propel this website into the NSFW category. My job here is done. SC
Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Writers: Kelly Marcel, E.L. James, Patrick Marber, Mark Bomback
Genre: Drama, Adaptation
Runtime: 1 hr. 50 min.
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Grey Hardin
Related: Gone Girl (2014)