Fifty Shades of Grey
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan
Based on the novel by E.L. James
Runtime 125 minutes
The thing about making a film about BDSM is that unless it stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider and it really has its wits about it, the target on its forehead is hard to miss. The bestselling novel on which the film is based, unread by me and mutated into three, tells the story of the kink that binds little shop girl Anastasia Steele to billionaire Christian Grey, of their relationship and his seduction of her into sexual slavery.
There are hundreds of films that have delved into BDSM – The Story of O, Basic Instinct and the gorgeous Last Tango in Paris did kink a long ago and before that there were hundreds, dating back to the earliest days of cinema. BDSM is a kind of mainstream pop theme now, found in music, television, clothing and décor. Fifty Shades of Grey had to reach higher to impress.
You just can’t win in the sex film racket unless there’s something solid for an audience to hold on to, passion, intelligence and intriguing characters with dimension. I’m intrigued to know how Grey got to where he is and to what he thinks he is, because there’s precious little satisfaction on that count. Steele is by contrast an open book and while this seems minor, we can only deal with what we’re given. When it’s this superficial, then who can care?
In all there are about twenty minutes of sex, and not until at least 40 minutes before there’s even a hint of it. There is the barest evidence of the existence of genitalia which is amazing since we see so much skin. Taylor-Johnson soft soaps it with lingering shots of eyes and gazes, bitten lips and heavy breathing and the body as sculpture, no risks taken. There is a withholding of the force of the attraction, connection and bond. Of dozens of sex scenes, there are just a couple that seem authentic and moving.
Dornan’s portrayal of Grey is problematic. A shocking lack of expression and apparent passion ruins his case for dominance over anything – let alone a feisty, self-aware woman – or a multi-billion dollar company. His one-note expression – anger mixed with disdain – and take-charge attitude aren’t enough to get what he demands. He’s uninteresting and flat, even embarrassed. Surely there is more to this Christian Grey character but Dornan hasn’t found it.
Johnson’s solid as Steele – oh and isn’t Anastasia Steele just the kind of name a Harlequin Romance heroine would have? – and plays the part with grit, irony and a sense of fun. Steele’s no pushover, but she does put up with a lot without understanding why. Johnson does everything but wink at the camera and shoot side eyes, and her quiet feminism shines through.
Toys. Grey owns a major collection of paraphernalia locked up in the Red Room, whips and cuffs and pulleys and hangers and butt plugs, but it is all squashed into a few minutes towards the end. Steele is vaguely disinterested, and that’s when the bell of doom begins to ring.
My favourite part is her refusal to sign Greys’ non-disclosure contract. He nags and nags her and she sidesteps it and sidesteps it, like a rebellious child being told to clean her room, except it’s to keep the lid on the goings-on in the Red Room of Pain. It her unsubtle way of telling tells him he’s no master, and she is the velvet hammer.
As for the shock value, there isn’t any. In France they’re are letting 12 year olds into the theatres and while that might be going a bit far, that’s about the size of it.
There’s buzz about the infuriating final scene. Believe me, its perfect.