Fifty Shades of Grey: a review

The Fifty Shades of Grey cover poster, featuring lead actor Jamie Dornan

Due to a release that followed months of anticipation, both amongst eager fans and predestined critics, resulting in a YouTube trailer which amassed 193 million views, I feel the general tone and direction (or lack thereof) of the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey resulted in many minds being made up and reviews being written long before it ever reached our screens. Having had absolutely no desire to see the film myself, I have therefore pushed myself to be as unbiased as possible.

The fact the entire trilogy began as online Twilight fan fiction gives a very clear indication of the level we are on with this film. For anyone who is still unaware of the general plot, Anastasia Steele (Johnson) is the virginal and unassuming English Lit student (cue stereotype number one) who is sent to interview businessman Christian Grey (Dornan), and is immediately enchanted by his handsome and authoritative character. Her intrigue eventually leads her to sign a non-disclosure so she might uncover the secret of his infamous ‘playroom’ and fascination with BDSM. She is then presented with a contract, ultimately requiring her to be a kind of ‘sex-slave’ each weekend, as he has some insatiable need to play the dominant. In return she will, of course, benefit from his not inconsiderable wealth, which we witness throughout in the form of flashy helicopters and the subtle product placement in his garage full of Audis.

Honestly, I struggle to find much to say about this film. It’s not, as many critics would have you believe, so bad that it’s laughable or entertaining (much to my disappointment). Nor is it an interesting representation of BDSM relationships, role-play, or even misogyny for that matter. It’s all rather tame. It’s evident throughout that the film suffers due to its intended mass target audience: strictly the blockbuster, moneymaking mainstream. That means people who do not want to see anything unsightly– male genitals and realistically dirty sex scenes included. I feel like there’s a huge bandwagon that everyone has jumped on so that they can feel OK with themselves for being turned on by this huge erotic genre (BDSM), which many still term freakish or abnormal. Either that or they want to appear less frigid by joining in with their friends and feeling ‘scandalous’.

There are therefore limitations to the scandal that can be tolerated on the big screen, especially given the huge audience density in the highly conservative US, so that ultimately the Valentine’s Day release date is all too befitting, and the film consists of too many dull, dramatic scenes which suffer hugely from the constraints placed on the screenwriter by E. L James, resulting in truly painful dialogue. Really, really painful. It’s again in that strange, grey area (no pun intended), where it’s definitely bad, but not bad, cheesy, or obvious enough to be laughable. Dornan seems to be very constrained on screen, not engaging the audience with his ‘troubled’ character who takes to sad piano playing when he can’t sleep, and who’s masochist vices stem from a ‘Mrs Robinson’ type affair when he was just fifteen, and vague memories of a crack-addicted birth mother (of course he’s adopted). Given the ridiculousness of the character profile, you half expect another American Psycho. Sadly this is not what you get, and, incidentally, you’d do much better with another viewing of this or The Graduate before wasting two hours and the best part of a tenner.

On the other hand, and rather ironically given her role in the playroom, it is Dakota Johnson who dominates the screen. Once we move beyond the ‘voice that isn’t quite speaking, isn’t quite whispering’, we see her bring humour to some scenes, whether this is with convincing drunk acting, or smirking satire as she takes the piss out of ‘Mr Grey’. She brings some spark to the mousy female lead, and as she plays with ‘Christian’ throughout, withholding her consent and using the opportunity to explore her own limits and hidden desires, perhaps there’s some kind of message for ‘feminism in the face of misogyny’ in this otherwise directionless smut.

To give the film merit where it’s due, technically, it’s well crafted. The writers seem to have cut out as much of the repulsive ‘inner goddess’ dialogue from the book as possible. Everything in Mr Grey’s world of the slick, immensely wealthy bachelor is impressive whilst still retaining a firm level of believability- and I doubt fans will be disappointed with the playroom itself. The camera work isn’t half bad, despite a few too many cheesy, ‘long pause’ shots of Dornan touching Johnson’s face, the editing is neat, and the sex scenes themselves are well constructed. It’s just that fans may be surprised with how few of them there are. For a film that’s essentially about BDSM, we only get two visits to the ‘playroom’, and nothing about it feels controversial, shocking, or particularly explicit. Fifty Shades sadly has no strong message, and no real purpose. It’s a romantic drama, without much of a storyline, where the sex scenes are a bit more exciting than usual. It fails to say anything important, but to be fair I don’t think that was ever its intention, and at least it has helped to bring sex further into everyday discourse.

So overall, I guess it wasn’t completely terrible. Good soundtrack.

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