Adapted and directed by women of considerably larger talent than novelist E.L. James, the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey turns out to be an intriguing tussle—not in the sack, or in the Red Room of Pain, but in its internal war between the dubious erotica of James’ novel (the first of three) and the far craftier trash offered by the movie.
It’s poetic justice. James’ love story concerns an impossibly rich, sexually exotic, emotionally remote billionaire and the collegiate virgin who becomes the Submissive to his Dominant, in the parlance of the bondage/discipline/sado-masochism realm. The novel is very likely the worst-written international bestseller since the Twilight series and maybe since, once upon a time in the same kingdom of forbidden love, The Bridges of Madison County.
What has happened with Fifty Shades of Grey? As with the first Twilight movie back in 2008, the one directed with canny, low-key commitment by Catherine Hardwicke, James’ book has been de-crudified, its most operatic expressions of lust stricken from the record. That leaves the greasy, sexualized violence of the premise, but even that has been tilted ever so slightly to a more skeptical position.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and her adapter, Kelly Marcel, remain true to the Etch-a-Sketch contours of the narrative, up to and including the abrupt cliffhanger ending that really doesn’t work in a stand-alone movie. At a recent screening, yelps of frustration greeted the final exchange between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey as they reached the impasse setting up books two and three. So. While the film will surely kill this Valentine’s Day weekend, those yelps may point to a medium-smash as opposed to an extra-large model.
Rumors of James getting all whips-and-chainsy with her on-set demands during filming have been circulating ever since the first photos appeared of Dakota Johnson, who plays Ana, and Jamie Dornan, a.k.a. His Abcellence, as Christian. I wonder if James could even recognize some of the screenplay’s exchanges, since they occasionally approximate human speech and, in the crucial case of Ana, create a female protagonist who isn’t entirely a doormat. The set-up’s the same as it was in the book. Covering for her ailing college roommate (Eloise Mumford, very good), bookish but demurely smoldering Ana interviews the elusive Mr. Grey for a class assignment. Smolder, smolder, smolder and pretty soon, Ana and Christian are dating, sort of. His stalkerish behavior and insane control-freakery is mitigated by exquisite taste in wines and a penchant for shirtlessly interpreting melancholy sonatas at the keyboard with the lights of Seattle far below.
Like the vampire and werewolf hunks of the Twilight series, Christian is forbidden fruit, served hot. Ana is the retrograde heroine metaphorically tied to a railroad track (and later, literally tied to other things) who yearns for adventure, and release, and a healthy way to explore her dawning sexuality and find a boyfriend who’ll open up a little. Is that so much? But it is. It is so much in this world. The bulk of Fifty Shades of Grey presents a world ruled by a helicopter-flying gym rat raised on a steady diet of 9 1/2 Weeks, Zalman King’s soft-core cable fantasies and fashion spreads straight out of Muted Blues and Greys Monthly.
The surprise, if there is a surprise here, is that the film has found a slyly humorous tone for much of the running time. Johnson gets all the right kinds of laughs with Ana’s flustered or chops-busting reactions to her Dominant’s latest exhibitions of A) hotness, or B) scariness. Reading the novel, which set a record for high-volume, clinically successful yet grimly downbeat orgasms in mainstream erotica, nobody and nothing seemed human, or even humanoid. The movie actually does, though Dornan struggles to keep up with Johnson’s loose, ingratiating rhythms. He’s not terrible, but the Northern Ireland native’s dialect work (going for neutral American) doesn’t quite sound natural, and he has a way of hitting one note emotionally per scene and sticking with it, while trying not to blink. This is what they teach models-turned-actors at the Hawklike Stare School of Troubled Dreamboats.
Even de-crudified, the world, the ethos and the selling points of the Fifty Shades phenomenon are to me suspect and hollow. The story exhibits zero interest in how a contrivance such as Christian could possibly compartmentalize his interests to this degree and still be called an earthling. However much or little intercourse is involved, popular fiction often showcases impossible fantasies in lieu of people; it’s the golden ticket in Gone Girl, among others. For an hour or so, director Taylor-Johnson sidesteps the biggest land mines in her material, but as Christian’s possessive, obsessive, secret-laden nature gathers the storm clouds overhead, and Ana goads her master into testing her limits, there’s only so much a director can do to pretend the material is something it isn’t.
Going in, I expected either a camp hoot or a complete, slavishly faithful Submissive of a film, playing opposite the Dominant novel. Instead, Fifty Shades turns out to be roughly as pretty good as the first Twilight—appropriate, since James wrote Fifty Shades as sexed-up, loinzapoppin’ fan fiction paying tribute to the Twilight bestsellers. For the record, Fifty Shades has been banned outright in Malaysia, while receiving a 13-and-up rating in France. As Christian Grey would never, ever say: It’s a funny old world.
50 Shades of Grey (R): ★★✩✩✩