Fifty Shades of Grey – Reviewed by David Turpin
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford.
Fifty Shades of Grey, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of the first installment of E. L. James’s popular erotic novels, had the misfortune of screening for critics on the same day as Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, an exquisite film exploring roles of sexual dominance and submission. Almost any film on this subject would suffer by comparison with Strickland’s beautifully wrought, intelligent and unexpectedly moving piece, so it feels unfair to labour the superficial similarities – Fifty Shades of Grey is, first and foremost, a piece of machine-tooled product, engineered primarily to please James’s legions of fans. Nevertheless, ask a viewer with no prior knowledge of either film to guess which was directed by a celebrated visual artist and former Turner Prize nominee and they might be surprised to learn that distinction belongs not to The Duke of Burgundy but to Fifty Shades of Grey.
On its own terms, Fifty Shades of Grey is not the unmitigated fiasco many have been hoping for. Nothing if not competent – in a workmanlike fashion – it also has a secret weapon in the form of lead actress Dakota Johnson (daughter of Melanie Griffth). As Anastasia Steele, the improbably named literature student who is introduced to S&M by brooding billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), Johnson manages, against all odds, to bring intelligence and interior life to a character who, as written, possesses neither. Sharing her mother’s gift for comedy, she’s nuanced enough to suggest a raised eyebrow even as the script calls for her to do little more than bite her lip.
However, it takes two to make a romance come alive on screen and Dornan – a late replacement for Charlie Hunnam – is a disaster. The Irish-born actor’s popularity seems to be based on the principle that charisma is inversely proportional to personality – an idea far more perverse than anything in Fifty Shades of Grey – and, having managed to navigate two seasons of The Fall without varying his facial expression once, he clearly sees no need to break the mould here. Throughout, Christian’s supposed magnetism is much discussed but never in evidence. Arguably, Dornan’s role is to be a blank space into which viewers can project their own fantasies, but even on these terms he’s a dud because his discomfort with the role – not to mention the accent – keeps showing through to kill the mood. Dornan’s inability to get into the swing of things feels a lot like embarrassment, and seems churlish given the scrupulousness with which Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography – as blandly attractive as Dornan himself – preserves his modesty throughout. Taylor-Johnson and her stars have been at pains to point out that the sex acts depicted in the film, and S&M relationships in general, are based on mutual consent and clearly defined boundaries.
Indeed, a good portion of Fifty Shades of Grey is given over to the thrashing out of a contract between Anastasia and Christian. This is all very well in life, but on film any relationship that proceeds in such a fashion is, by definition, rather undramatic. Matters aren’t helped by Taylor-Johnson’s largely anonymous direction, which side-steps the kind of hysteria that would make this material laughable (and perhaps memorable), but offers little more than glassy surfaces in its place.
Unlike Catherine Hardwicke, whose work on the first Twilight film married an unashamed empathy for the heroine’s adolescent viewpoint with a cheerful embrace of the material’s camp potential, Taylor-Johnson seems resistent to entering into the spirit of the exercise, which – however ludicrous that spirit may be – is something of a handicap. One might put the film’s blandness down to studio intervention – and recent interviews with Taylor-Johnson suggest that she would like us to do just that – but it’s also very much of a piece with the 1990s “YBA” scene from which she emerged, in which a determinedly banal approach to hot button subject matter was often mistaken for genuine provocation.
It’s a shame that Taylor-Johnson isn’t minded towards camp, because in her supporting cast she’s assembled a crack team for the job. Arch ham Marcia Gay Harden turns up as Christian’s mother, chomping at the bit for a scenery-chewing opportunity that never materialises. Jennifer Ehle is similarly underused as Anastasia’s mother, while the pop singer Rita Ora – who seems game for anything except releasing records – turns up for a minute or so as Christian’s sister and is upstaged by her wig. Perhaps they’ll all get a chance to showboat in the inevitable sequels, but given the dearth of dramatic material in the current installment, that seems to be taking delayed gratification rather too far.
The retrograde sexual politics of Fifty Shades of Grey have been extensively discussed, and it’s not necessary to have read James’s book to find them grimly familiar. Unlike Michael Rowe’s unflinching Año Bisiesto (2010) or Kieran Evans’s Kelly + Victor (2012), both of which grappled intelligently with the psychology of sexual masochism, Fifty Shades of Grey styles itself as a contemporary fairy tale.
As such, its perspective on its central relationship has most in common with Steven Shainberg’s overrated Secretary (2002), sharing with that older film the rather spurious premise that S&M offers a way for a woman to turn a lack of self-worth to her advantage by bagging an emotionally stunted bastard who also happens to be wealthy.
In Fifty Shades of Grey, we never learn the exact source of Christian’s seemingly infinite riches, but their trappings are lavishly presented for our delectation. I lost count of the number of times Christian is shown strapping Anastasia into a luxury vehicle, while his infamous “Red Room” is deliberately shot to look like a swanky boutique. With sex scenes that are unlikely to ruffle any feathers, the film is ultimately most disquieting for the blithely uncritical way in which it links sexual power dynamics to economic ones. Whether it’s more fun to be spanked by a delivery boy or a billionaire is a question for the metaphysicians, but it’s difficult to swallow Taylor-Johnson presenting as softcore fantasy the same link between privilege and sexual sadism that Pasolini mined for abject horror in Salo, Or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). On this subject, as on so many others, Taylor-Johnson seems oddly uncurious. Like its hero, her handsome, empty film is conservative where it counts.