Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
When English lit student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is sent to interview a wealthy industrialist named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the school paper, they make a connection that leads to him pursuing her. Once she starts getting closer to the reclusive billionaire, she learns his intentions for her are not what she’d consider a “normal” relationship.
A quick introductory caveat that I’ve never read any of E L James’s novels about the relationship between naïve Anastasia Steele and the more experienced Christian Grey, so I went into the movie directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) with only the perfunctory amount of information about what this story was about. I essentially knew it was a romance novel with graphically-described sex and sadomasochistic undertones, and that many have wondered how they’d depict that on screen while maintaining an R rating. Turns out it wasn’t so hard after all. (And no, that wasn’t meant as a double entendre.)
Not that a movie about a sexual relationship is anything new for those who remember the steamy 9 ½ Weeks, starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke, but this is meant to show the not particularly odd female fantasy of a young woman experiencing her sexual awakening through a rich and powerful man. Granted, this isn’t your typical love story, because it isn’t a relationship based on love or admiration as much as it’s one based on dominance vs. submission. And that’s where you’d think a movie like this would lose most of its audience… if not for the insane success of the books.
That aside, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t nearly as grueling or ridiculous as some might expect knowing the general approach that’s been taking to adapting romance novels to the screen. In some ways, it owes more to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl than “The Twilight Saga” or other young adult fantasies, although it still comes from the same simple-minded idea of romance that fuels little girls’ desire to be swept off their feet by rich and powerful princes.
One of the reasons the movie works at all is because Dakota Johnson is quite admirable at acting awkward and frazzled from her very first meeting with Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey. While she seems extremely naïve due to her inexperience, we do get the impression she will find a way to gain more control in this relationship than might be obvious from the start. As the two start getting closer, Anastasia learns that Christian’s sexual tastes involve being able to dominate his sex partners, and he expects Anastasia to sign a non-disclosure agreement and a contract to make sure that relationship is clear. How romantic.
Maybe this isn’t exactly the female power fantasy some women might thrive, although there’s something to be said about being able to drive a powerful man crazy—except that Christian Grey doesn’t have too far to go in that respect, as he already has serious intimacy issues before Anastasia turns up on his doorstep. That’s where things get somewhat dicey, because we’re led to believe that Grey comes from a background of abuse that leads to his behavior towards women, but it just doesn’t ring true.
Often, the duo’s dialogue is ridiculous and silly, possibly to elicit titters from the knowing audience of women who have read the books and know what’s to come, but when it finally gets to the much-ballyhooed sex scenes, there’s nothing particularly sexy or erotic about them. It’s the same as any other movie where we get a few minutes of nudity, fake penetration and a little more flogging than usual, and then we’re back to the cat-and-mouse mind games the two of them are playing with each other once they’re clothed.
Even so, Dornan, who gives a generally flat performance compared to Johnson, sets standards way too high for women who think that what Grey offers is the epitome of what romance can be. That is one of the same issues with the “Twilight” movies, and even without the silly glittery vampires playing baseball, it’s still a problem nonetheless.
Like with Gone Girl, the way men and women relate makes for a worthy topic of conversation, although it’s hard to imagine many women would find Anastasia’s situation to be romantic in any way. Once again, the success of James’ books may prove me wrong.
There’s some credibility issues in the way the S&M is handled, as well. Anyone completely unfamiliar with the realities might believe a powerful man like Christian Grey would be into total dominance in the bedroom as well, but as someone who has known women who work in that industry, it’s usually the opposite. The most powerful men in industry are more likely to be submissives, since they’re used to get anything they want in their 9 to 5 work lives, so being told what to do in the bedroom is more of a turn-on because it’s foreign to them. Knowing this made it hard to fully believe this relationship, although that’s more an issue with the source material.
Sam Taylor-Johnson does a perfectly fine job directing this film, having the benefits of master cinematographer Seamus McGarvey behind the camera and Danny Elfman providing a score, but there are also great musical choices throughout from the opening strains of “I Put a Spell on You.”
While the results aren’t quite on par artistically as the recent Duke of Burgundy, it’s a far more palatable film than Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which was just an ugly twist erotic fiction that lacked any of the romantic gloss that Fifty Shades at least strives for.
The Bottom Line:
Fifty Shades of Grey is more of a character study about the evolution of a sexual relationship than anything else. While some aspects of that relationship might be off-putting, that’s more due to the source material than anything done by the actors or filmmakers who handle the topic in a surprisingly tasteful way.[Gallery not found]