Yes, the time has come for me to review one of the most hotly anticipated and most derided films of this year: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015).
In brief, a talented cast and crew try their utmost to deliver a decent film, but their efforts are somewhat marred by the fact that they’re, you know, adapting Fifty Shades of Grey.
You all know the story: meek college student Anastasia
Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way Steele interviews masochistic billionaire Christian Grey for the student newspaper. The two are smitten with each other, but Christian’s ‘tortured past’ has given him a predilection for bondage, and he introduces Ana to a new world of sex, wealth and anatomical improbability.
EL James’ trilogy of erotic novels have become pretty notorious for a variety of reasons. They’re arguably some of the most popular novels of all time (weep for the future of English literature), but they’re equally well-known for their poor writing, problematic messages and humble origins as Twilight fan fiction.
Inevitably, with the runaway success of the novels, a film adaptation was on the cards. And, despite the book being so bad that I couldn’t make it beyond Chapter Nine, I am happy to say that my verdict on the film itself is: ‘not that bad’.
Writer Kelly Marcel has shaped James’ rambling narrative into something which resembles a coherent story without straying too far from the original novel. The film downplays most of the book’s worst elements (the stalking, abuse, Ana’s subconscious – which feels the need to comment constantly on the action). The tone is lighter and less melodramatic overall, as well as dramatically downgrading the abusive undertones wherever possible. Unfortunately, much of EL James’ notoriously awful dialogue still remains, including the absolute stinker of a line – “I’m fifty shades of fucked up”. Dornan delivered the line with his back to the camera (presumably because he couldn’t say it with a straight face) and it still elicited howls of laughter from the audience in the cinema. I assume these lines were ‘fan favourites’ so couldn’t be cut without provoking riots in the streets, but this seems like a poor excuse to force the actors to attempt to say these lines without vomiting onto their shoes.
The performances are fairly decent, and certainly far above the lip biting and nostril twitching of the Twilight franchise
Dakota Johnson shines as Fifty Shades’ naïve heroine, managing to inject a semblance of life into this hollow audience placeholder of a character. She’s funny and endearingly scatty, with a light charm which makes you understand Christian’s interest and an underlying smartness which makes you feel much more confident in her than her literary counterpart. Just compare her to Kristen Stewart in Twilight (they are, after all, essentially playing the same character) and you’ll understand why Dakota Johnson is in a different league. I also appreciated the fact that an actress was cast who was, though by no means ugly, not exactly your stereotypical Hollywood cutie.
Although he shares decent chemistry with his co-star, Jamie Dornan struggles as tortured billionaire Christian Grey. He’s not charismatic enough to make me understand Ana’s compulsive need to see him, and not brooding enough for me to feel his painful emotional scars. Instead, Dornan’s performance is wooden and even timid at times; I generally try to avoid guessing the actor’s motivations, but Dornan looks so painfully uncomfortable that it makes me guess he was regretting his decision to sign onto the film. However, he doesn’t bring any of the cocky sex appeal and playful danger of, say, Ian Somerhalder (who would be my choice for the role). To be fair to him, his character is cauterised by the adaptation (for good reason) to make him less creepy, which doesn’t give Dornan much to play with, and consequentially a lot of his bigger scenes fall flat.
Unlike many films which already had an inbuilt audience of rabid fans and enough hype to practically guarantee its success (Twilight and Divergent both spring to mind), Fifty Shades isn’t a lazily made film resting on the popularity of its source material. Director Sam Taylor-Johnston isn’t complacent, and delivers a product which is well-shaped and beautiful to look at. With sleek and stylish cinematography and great atmosphere, the film does succeed in bringing the world to life, packaging Christian and Ana’s ‘love story’ (yes, I am using sarcastic quotation marks for a reason) as a modern-day fairy tale. The soundtrack is also fantastic and very well-used to heighten the mood, with You Put a Spell On Me and Crazy in Love both being stand outs.
I heard a lot of audience members complain that the film didn’t contain enough sex, but I completely disagree. If you want to watch sex, boot up your computer and watch pornography. We go to the movies because we expect more (little things like plot, characters, spectacle) and, in a film, every sex scene needs to advance the plot and develop the characters. I found the sex to be fairly tasteful and never gratuitous, though as I’m in no way into the whole ‘whips and chains’ gig, I didn’t find it particularly sexy. I also appreciated the fact that Johnson wasn’t waxed down there, a refreshing change from our society’s mainstream images of women’s bodies. Yes, women actually aren’t perfectly manicured plastic dolls, please get over it. One of my favourite shots of the entire film was one where Christian undresses Ana, Johnson backlit so we saw the hairs on her legs rise as he approached. It’s little touches like this which make it so clear that this is a female perspective on the material (something very rare in mainstream Hollywood, where even most female-geared films are directed by men).
As a side note, I am absolutely astonished that Stephanie Meyer and Summit haven’t sued for plagiarism yet. There were so many characters who were clearly carbon copies of those in Twilight, and scenes such as Ana meeting Christian’s family which served no real purpose as serve only as parallels to Twilight. These scenes stilt an already flabby narrative bogged down with too much set up and not enough pay off. I imagine that the filmmakers could have adapted James’ entire trilogy into one film and been much the better for it (though, of course, that would have meant the studios getting less money).
What’s most sad about Fifty Shades is that this could have been a good film, if the director and writer had been given more creative freedom to stray from the source material (and risked angering fans). As it is, the film is a bit of an oddity: not coherent or interesting enough to be an actually successful film, but nowhere near incompetent enough to be a fully blown, disastrous guilty pleasure. I am choosing to look on the positive side, and hope it will bring more (and hopefully better-written) films about women and open more doors to talented female filmmakers. It’s worth seeing just because of its significance to our culture generally, but I doubt you’ll catch me watching the sequels.
xoxo, Emily Rose
Watch my review of Sense and Sensibility (1995) here.
Read my review of Testament of Youth (2015), a historical romantic drama set in World War One, here.