Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, written by Kelly Marcel from the novel by EL James | 125 min | Netflix
I knew this picture was in trouble when early on the heroine of the piece, college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), dressed in her unpretentious print blouse, arrives at a phallic glass and chrome skyscraper in Seattle. She looks up and says, “Wow.”
What we have here is an English lit major who gets impressed by your average building.
She’s in the big city to interview a self-made 27-year-old billionaire named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the college paper as a favour to her sick j-school roomie, Kate (Eloise Mumford).
He’s a slick, well-dressed dude who takes a shine to her, later tracking her down at her hardware store dayjob in her college town—very stalkery—and then even later to a bar, before bringing her back to his place and laying out a contract, the stuff she must agree to if she wants to date him. Stuff around the kind of control he needs to exert, violence he’d like to do to her while having sex. The red flags are flying high here, but since she’s a naive, virginal grad student and he’s a rich, Audi-driving hottie, she considers his appalling offer.
I’m well aware of the immense popularity of the source material, the so-called erotic novel and its sequels, how it caught on with a largely female audience, providing a thrill with its descriptions of rough sex. And I also know it started as Twilight fan fiction.
All that said, I’m coming to the picture having not read any of it. I really tried to take this at face value as a self-contained picture, one with a woman in the director’s chair, adapting a story written by a woman. This is a very unusual and excellent thing to be happening in Hollywood.
Which is partly why the movie is so disappointing. What I saw was terrible for at least six reasons. Here they are:
1) I was made to understand why the BDSM community is up in arms about this movie.
In order to indulge in these kinds of intimate acts in a healthy way, it takes a lot of communication, understanding, maturity, and explicit consent. That isn’t what happens here between Anastasia and Christian—the power balance is dangerously skewed to him from the get-go and doesn’t get much better as it goes along. Anastasia, trying to navigate her first real sexual relationship, wants “normal” things with her lover, including just going for dinner with him, sharing a bed to sleep in, stuff he refuses to do. But she is willing to indulge him his kinks even though it hurts her, both physically and emotionally, because she doesn’t want to lose him. This is traumatic shit. That’s not how BDSM is supposed to work, folks.
2) I was also made to understand why organizations advocating for women are up in arms about this movie.
It presents a highly controlling man abusing his lover for his pleasure, and her trying to accommodate him despite the danger it puts her in. It reinforces that awful myth held by a lot of victims of violence that if you really love your partner, you can change them, even when the guy admits, as Christian does, that he’s damaged and unable to manage real intimacy. This is a model of abuse in domestic relationships. Given the truly horrible statistics about rape and assault in our society, the fact that so many people can’t get enough of this material is totally mystifying. I guess that’s fantasy for you—it doesn’t always have to make sense. But you’d think, at the very least, the movie would be sexy.
3) It’s totally unsexy.
It’s like this movie had one job and it couldn’t manage that. Dornan has the washboard abs, but is otherwise stuffy and stiff. Johnson is genuine Hollywood royalty—daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, granddaughter of Tippi Hedren—and comes out of this a lot better. The lip-biting thing is way overdone, though she believably conveys the emotion required in the part, and is the best thing in a long, dull second act. But the sexual content is much more coy than it should’ve been. Maybe it’s to avoid an x-rating, but there were lots of ways they could have shot this to deliver a little more pizzazz. Seriously—this film’s obvious antecedent, Nine 1/2 Weeks, was a whole lot hotter.
4) The ending is a total dud.
Maybe they’re setting us up for the inevitable sequels, but after a scene where she musters a modicum of self-respect goes to black, there’s no satisfying resolution to be found.
5) People are saying the film has a sense of humour. They’re mistaken. It’s very flat, the dialogue dull and obvious.
6) Playing the mothers of the leads, the film wastes Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Ehle, which is criminal given their talents.
I hate to be entirely negative about a movie, so before I totally pan it, I’ll leave you with this:
The wardrobe for both leads is sharp, and the soundtrack is pretty good. I dig that Beyonce remix. But none of that makes 50 Shades of Grey worth seeing.