Fifty Shades Freed – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by James Foley
Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden
Reviewed by David Turpin
Three years on from Sam Taylor-Wood’s glib franchise-starter, the Fifty Shades of Grey ‘saga’ reaches its conclusion – or ‘climax’, as the posters offer, with touching overstatement. Finally, we have arrived at the apotheosis of unerotic erotica: Fifty Shades Freed, directed, like the previous Fifty Shades Darker, by journeyman hack James Foley. Since the nonsensically titled film’s meagre crumbs of action all involve our heroine Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) bending to the will of her noxious now-husband, Christian (Jamie Dornan), its unclear quite what she is being ‘freed’ from. Agency, perhaps?
Anyway, you read that correctly. He’s her husband now. After being proposed to by the same person on three separate occasions in Fifty Shades Darker, Anastasia has taken the unprecedented step of marrying him. We barely have time to recover from this wrenching plot twist – and from a curiously low-budget wedding montage – before our happy couple are whisked into a whirlwind of nothing in particular that randomly scatters brief and tame ‘erotic’ scenes amidst long stretches of dead air. Dramatically, Fifty Shades Freed most resembles the early, boring episodes of Dynasty, before Joan Collins joined the cast – when it was mainly about Krystle learning how to talk to the cook.
Though it never touches them for entertainment value, the series shares more than nonsensical plotting with 80s American soaps: it has revealed itself as being less about erotic pleasure and more about conspicuous consumption. Time and again, Christian dazzles his new wife with some luxury product – a jet, a boat, a mansion, whatever – for her to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over. Toxic and offensive as this pornography of wealth is – not least for its barely veiled assumptions about female desire – perhaps it makes for better viewing because the happy couple’s sex life is frankly boring. Anyone hoping for some ideas to add zest to the boudoir will be left empty-handed: the most outré moment involves Anastasia smearing a half spoonful of vanilla ice-cream over Christian’s collar bone.
Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if the film acknowledged the unusual nature of its premise: might what began as a story about the attraction of the unknown become an exploration of the eroticism of monogamy? Forget it. The film’s conception of marital partnership is just depressing. Key moments include: Christian throwing a towel in Anastasia’s face after she dares to sunbathe topless on a topless beach; Christian interrupting Anastasia at work to browbeat her for not immediately changing her work email to reflect her married name; Christian telephoning Anastasia six times while she is trying to have a drink with a friend, and on and on and on. Feeling ‘Freed’ yet?
The standard defence of the Fifty Shades films (as a phenomenon, since they’re indefensible as cinema) is that they provide a female-centric viewpoint within a marketplace crowded with superhero junk. This is simply not the case. For a start, they are superhero junk. For seconds, the approximation of a female viewpoint by the almost entirely male creative team is so cack-handed that one finds oneself wondering if any of them have ever met a woman (screenwriter Niall Leonard clearly has, being married to E. L. James herself). This is a world of women who stick their heads out of fitting room curtains mewling ‘Help, my zipper got stuck’; who offer each other comfort by blankly asking ‘Are you okay? Can I get you a latte?’; who complement each other by saying ‘You look so… married’.
All of the above is what is bad about Fifty Shades Freed. Dakota Johnson – a fine, resourceful actress drowning in tripe – is what is tragic. If the first film offered an object lesson in how a star turn can elevate dreary material, the subsequent episodes are a grim reminder of how a bad franchise can trap a genuine talent. The greatest pity of all is to watch her play opposite Dornan, whose palpable contempt for the material is the recurring death blow in scene after scene. How different might this junk feel if the leading man looked like he wanted to be there? Might it even be… fun? Instead, we’re stuck with a supposed ‘desire object’ who just looks like he hates us. Whether this is a matter of Dornan being ‘too good an actor’ for the material is moot (although his other big screen work would suggest that this is not the case). These are not ‘actor’ roles; they’re ‘star’ roles, and only a star could make them work. Johnson almost does. Dornan is simply horrible to watch.
The rest of the cast gets negligible screen time. Irritatingly, the character played by Kim Basinger – whose hilariously soapy turn in Fifty Shades Darker was that film’s lone high point – is discussed at length, but never even appears on screen. Camp maven Marcia Gay Harden has one scene. Jennifer Ehle appears fleetingly and has no lines. Likable multi-tasking singer Rita Ora, who has stuck out the whole series, is given a notionally larger role, but required to play much of it with a rag in her mouth. She is finally handed the reins for the insipidly bombastic closing credits song. It’s a mark of the series’ persistent failure of its leading ladies that she is required to duet with Liam Payne, another sulking charisma vacuum who would clearly rather be elsewhere.