3.5 out of 10
Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele
Directed by James Foley
Fifty Shades Darker Review:
In theory a story does not have to be about its story, if that makes sense. It doesn’t have to be about its plot or its characters or any relevant themes or anything else we might recognize as being ‘a story.’ There have been plenty of experimental works which have done away with all of that, like shucking off a dress at the end of the night and prancing about naked, reveling in the taboos they may be breaking. Pulling that off is a high wire feat demanding nerve and skill and a hefty amount of luck.
Missing out on any part of that will suddenly remind the viewer of everything that’s been given up and cause an instant calculation as to whether it was worth it. Fifty Shades Darker delivers on its promises of nudity and sexual escapades, but sacrifices character, theme, romance or anything remotely interesting in order to provide it.
After deciding the cost of a relationship with billionaire bachelor Christian Grey (Dornan) is higher than she wants to pay, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) has begun to build the rest of her future for herself. Beginning a career in the literary world under the mentorship of a respected editor (Eric Johnson) helps, but she can’t help but feel something is missing.
When Christian turns up at her door, Anastasia decides to give him another chance and to try and unravel the mystery of why he is the way he is. Faster than you can say nipple clamps, she is thrust into a world of masked balls and mysterious stalkers. Desperate to believe Christian that he wants to change who he is for her, Anastasia digs in, but the more she uncovers about his past, the more she asks herself if she has made the same mistake all over again.
It’s a question anyone stuck in the theater watching Fifty Shades Darker will surely be asking as well. The idea is that we are following Anastasia’s journey from walking out on Christian at the end of the last film to potentially being willing to share her life with him by the end with tension coming from the question of how much of his weirdness she can put up with (or even learn to enjoy) or whether he’s willing to give up enough to keep her if the answer is ‘not much.’ Darker does not deliver on this idea very well, in part because of the episodic nature of Niall Leonard’s script, which keeps long-form tension from developing and leaves the story without a climax.
But more fully it’s because director James Foley (Glengarry Glenn Ross) has his eye on other things as he takes over the series. Delivering a lush visual experience, Foley’s focus is entirely on the surface pushing everything of remote substance to the side to make room for more and more love scenes punctuated by sequences of extended pouting. Fifty Shades of Grey skated by doing much of the same thing under the intuition that first films are the initial seduction and are as much about anticipation as revelation. Sequels have to go to the next level, which means there needs to be a next level to go to. Fifty Shades Darker just runs in circles and hopes no one notices.
The main roadblock is Christian, who remains more plot device than character. Moody and reticent as ever, his refusal to explain why he is the way he is turns him into a living prop who exists only to glare and thrust. Anything of interest which happens to him occurs off-screen or between films, giving Dornan little to do but reveal exposition. Rather than force him to chase Anastasia throughout the film, or worse yet, confront his own inner demons and initiate change within himself, Fifty Shades Darker skips past such things, allowing Dornan and Johnson to pick up where they left off and giving the story nowhere to go for two excruciating hours.
Christian’s innate boringness had previously been balanced out by Anastasia’s potential for development, her growth from a literal innocent to a dominant presence who takes the power position in her relationships. There’s plenty of fertile thematic ground there; David Cronenberg has spent most of his entire career mining it, so we know it can be done and done well.
Darker, however, chooses to avoid any of that in favor of dinners and balls and rainy Seattle afternoons and a lot of surface-oriented mood pieces usually left to much more amateurish enterprises. Any will-they/won’t-they stay together tension is drained in favor of ‘when will they get naked again;’ small crises are strung together, but the episodic nature of the plot means they come and go quickly and never mean anything.
The closest to a through-line in the story are the occurrences of one of Christian’s disturbed ex’s (Heathcote), who wants the spot Anastasia occupies. But even that is bungled as her appearances are infrequent and when they finally do to come to a head, it is early in the third act rather than the climax, which is left instead to a sudden helicopter crash shoved in-between two other scenes with no build and no connection.
But it’s not about the characters, it’s about the love scenes; the way action movies are really about the set pieces, right? Like action movies that are all action, without a functional narrative, the big moments just run together into a blob without emotive connectivity and thus without interest. The only thing Fifty Shades Darker succeeds at is making Fifty Shades of Grey look like a better movie, which is no small feat but no victory, either.