Review: Fifty Shades of Grey – Finding delight in disaster

DISCLAIMER: This review will not address the argument over whether or not Fifty Shades of Grey is anti-feminist. I do think it’s a valid and important discussion, but I do not feel qualified to lecture anyone on the matter. There are countless other, more informed, articles on both sides of this debate, and I encourage you to explore the topic elsewhere.

I first learned of the Fifty Shades book trilogy the way many of you likely did… my mum read it. In the summer of 2012, it gradually crept into public consciousness after its speedy self-publication and became the most scandalous beach book in decades. The books were labelled “granny porn”, and people seemed pretty relaxed with just writing them off as easily digestible trash to pass the time.

Then, the word of mouth spread so quickly that Fifty Shades became a point of fascination, with everybody apparently needing to have an opinion on it. Intelligent, credible people were dissecting Fifty Shades and analysing its success. The author E.L. James was all over television and breaking records constantly. Its sordid history as Twilight fanfiction with the names hurriedly changed was revealed, yet that clashed with the way James’ publicists tried to present her as a bold, boundary-breaking visionary.

People who were more sheltered or were simply unaware of how explicit arthouse output can be seemed to think that BDSM had never ever been breached before. Fifty Shades was, apparently, exciting and unusual to a huge core audience who embraced it unironically. It became a guilty pleasure to another, nerdier group, with a popular game rising from reading the book in a group in various silly voices to see who cracks up first.

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The likes of Gilbert Gottfried and Charles Dance lent their iconic voices to readings from the book, and instant hilarity was reached. Fifty Shades was like the literary equivalent of The Room – so expertly incompetent that it transcends mere trash and reaches the apex of so-bad-it’s-good. People with no sense of humour could use it as the world’s easiest punchline, yet the joke kept going.

Then, as always happens with flash-in-the-pan viral hits, people started treating the puppet like a real boy. A Fifty Shades film was greenlit, and speculation was rampant. One persistent rumour had Emma Watson down to play Anastasia, though she denies even having heard of the books at the time. Angelina Jolie was in talks to direct, though she didn’t get the job, and every photogenic actor in the world was apparently in the running for Christian Grey. The film even gained the tagline “the most talked about film of the year”, and if there wasn’t another Star Wars, Avengers, Hunger Games and Bond instalment coming up it may have lived up to the claim.

In the end, the screenplay was written by Kelly Marcel, who had previously scripted the charming Saving Mr. Banks for Disney. The chosen director was Sam Taylor-Johnson, helming her second film after the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy. The cinematographer Seamus McGarvey has worked on Atonement, Anna Karenina, Along Came Polly and even The Avengers… and that’s just the As! To top it all off the legendary Tim Burton collaborator, Danny Elfman, was hired to score the film. Serious, credible talent went into the film. Seriously.

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Therein lies the fatal flaw which would doom the film to disappointment: it was adapted by people who wanted it to be good. The book is clumsy, inconsistent, tasteless and unintentionally hilarious, as a result of having too few cooks. When a committee come together to try to fix a shattered piece of glass, there’s just no hiding the cracks.

Instead of the literary Anastasia Steele’s absurd, present-tense first-person inner monologue, we have Dakota Johnson, an actress far too gifted for the material, giving a performance so inexplicably subtle that Ana becomes downright bland. I really hope that this film doesn’t ruin her career, because she tries her damnedest to accomplish the impossible and make Anastasia a compelling protagonist.

Johnson’s bravery in taking on this role shouldn’t be dismissed. This film, while a guaranteed financial hit, was a massive creative risk to take. On top of carrying the heftiest role, she is forced, naked, into submissive positions which few actresses would willingly perform in front of the world. She’s shown a good sense of humour about the potentially humiliating material, and seems to be a sport about the whole thing.

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Sadly, her charisma is sucked into the vacuum that is Jamie Dornan’s Mr. Grey. Let’s just say it now: Dornan isn’t very good in this. In his defence, I don’t know if there’s any actor who could make this character work. Christian Grey is a cliché fantasy, and every woman will see their own dream man in the role. He’s supposed to be implausibly young and ungodly perfect; both irresistibly stoic and creepily vulnerable.

He’s apparently the smartest, most compelling man there is, yet the only things he ever has to say were written by E.L. James. He’s such a hypocritical mess of a character that I propose a drinking game where you take a drink every time Christian Grey breaks one of his own rules or contradicts himself.

The BDSM community weren’t thrilled with Fifty Shades for a) leading their underground activities to be seen as mainstream and passé, b) misrepresenting their relationships and the etiquette involved, c) basing itself on the myth that only somebody with a horrific history of abuse could be interested in BDSM, and d) portraying BDSM as activity which “normal” people would never do.

The franchise suggests that leaving the lifestyle will stabilise the damaged individual who engages in it. Ana, being the impossibly naïve individual she is, doesn’t even seem to know that sadomasochistic sex exists. She studies English Literature to degree level, but can’t figure out what the words “dominant”, “suspension” and “butt plug” mean. Our protagonist, ladies and gentlemen!

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You remember when I said that the series started as Twilight fanfiction? Well, the remnants of the previous title holder for Worst Thing Ever are all over it. Ana constantly bites her lip in a way which couldn’t have been directed any other way but “Dakota, do a Kristen Stewart face”. She has a vaguely ethnic friend with an obvious crush on her, who she friendzones. Her best friend, who is also the smartest girl in her class despite being an airhead, might as well have been played by Anna Kendrick, who might have brought a bit of levity to the proceedings as she did in Twilight.

And, just like Bella Swan, Anastasia Steele loves classic literature more than anything, but only seems to have a cursory Wikipedia-level knowledge of any, and thinks that Mr. Grey is super smart for being able to namecheck Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen. The only significant differences between Twilight and its rebellious offspring are that Christian Cullen is mortal (though not particularly human) and Ana Swan doesn’t wait until marriage to bump uglies with the only man who matters.

Because this film was made by smart people who tried to make it work, there is a self-awareness which is likely to win over non-book fans and upset book purists. The people who made this film know full well that this is a ridiculous premise with flat characters and that there’s a lot more telling than showing when it comes to the actual raunch. Some enjoyable scenes come around the middle of the film when Ana is perusing over the BDSM contract and negotiating with Grey over dinner and by cheeky e-mails.

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Not only does Johnson have fun with Ana’s flirtatious business face, but the dialogue calls to mind the classic Seinfeld episode “The Deal”, and the timing is played for deliberate laughs. The scenes talking about the freaky sex they’re going to eventually have are far more interesting than the actual pay-off; if the actors had better chemistry, these scenes could have potentially redeemed the premise.

So, time to stop beating around the bush. The big question: How is the sex? Well, if any of the sex scenes in Fifty Shades are the worst you’ve seen in a movie, then odds are you’re in the wrong screening room and were supposed to be seeing Shaun the Sheep. There’s lots of topless scenes from both parties, but you almost never see any downstairs (Dornan refused to do any willy shots… sorry, ladies!). The actual intercourse is mostly off-screen and implausibly clean and dry. This is sensual, perfect movie sex, not like sex you will ever have in real life.

Although you do see some spanking and whipping, there’s never even a slight reddening of skin. Ana’s pert bottom remains shiny and pale. Thanks to the white noise of the melodramatic soundtrack, you never hear an orgasm. We’re only treated to an endless stream of silent and photogenic O-faces. If you’ve seen any sex scene in any film or watched anything on HBO, then you’ve most likely seen worse than anything in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Normally, I’d encourage tasteful depiction of sex, but not when it’s the whole selling point. Anybody who wants to see Fifty Shades to see all that raunchy sex that the book was so infamous for, you’re not getting it here. There are at least a dozen films on Netflix which deal with sex in a more visceral, relatable way and they’re far cheaper to watch.

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Scenes like Christian pulling a tampon out of Ana aren’t welcome in this film, where all sex is seamless, semen-less and uninterrupted. The only scene that passes for a climax in this plotless trudge, where Christian gives Ana a full-blown taster of what really turns him on (six whips on the bum, is less extreme than most of the stuff in the contract and yet it still shocks her) is barely sexualised.

We’re so used to seeing Dakota Johnson naked by this point that there’s no fresh titillation to be found, and Grey doesn’t show any sign of actually being aroused, so it builds to almost nothing. The failure to bring sex and violence organically together in any palpable, provocative way robs the film of its meatiest moment.

After two hours, the film abruptly ends with a homage to The Godfather and a cliffhanger apparently to be resolved in Fifty Shades Darker next year. As I left the cinema, the hordes of women who’d come in groups or dragged their husbands along, hoping for an unironically enjoyable film, left quickly and quietly. There was no chatter or reminiscing about their favourite bits. The film that promised so much scandal hadn’t delivered.

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The same people who never read books (because books are boring and hard) and were therefore shocked at how much Fifty Shades defied their expectations of what books can contain may have expected the same rush from a film version, but instead they got straight-up, paint-by-numbers Hollywood fare.

My expectation is that the Fifty Shades phenomenon will be blighted by this disappointing film, the sequels will underperform and we’ll come full-circle to how the phenomenon began: with just a few educated nerds laughing in small niches about how charmingly and intriguingly awful this film is, ripping it apart line by line and trying to guess what possessed anybody to think this could work.

Fifty Shades of Grey, it turns out, is not The Room with a decent budget, but more on par with Showgirls. If you want it to be good, you’ll most likely think it’s bad. If you want it to be bad, you’ll most likely think it’s bad and be glad. But if you’re that breed who likes so-bad-it’s-good, then you’re in for a treat. I recommend Fifty Shades of Grey to anybody who delights in disaster, because this film is a most riveting disaster.

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