Fifty Shades Of Grey (2015)
Well you asked for it, as in specifically some of you out in the wide yawning ether asked if I was going to review 2015’s first cultural celluloid event, the biggest R rated opening of all time, a film with no superheroes or franchise credentials which is breathlessly lashing its way toward a $500 million global haul. My understanding and appraisal of the Fifty Shades Of Grey phenomenon has largely been restricted to that of any other armchair cultural commentator – precisely zero interest in reading the books due to the merciless quality of the critique’s of E.L. James sub par writing, a general baffled disinterest in ‘erotic literature’, and a mistrust of the series allegedly damaging sexual and gender politics. All of the criticisms directed to the books raise the same disquieting positions – being stalked is sexy!! All my abusive partner needs is the love of a good woman to ‘turn’ him good!! Being into slightly kinky sex is a severe character flaw arising from childhood trauma that requires ‘fixing’!! – hmm, none of that sounds particularly healthy. I think you do have to temper some of the hand-wringing, horrified opinion piece reactions to the books as just perhaps (sarcasm alert) the majority of women who catapulted the series into a publishing phenomenon are fully aware that the books are stupid, silly and just a little bit of sexy fun, in much the same way that I for example can happily watch some stupid monster B-Movie from the 1950’s and appreciate its terrible naffness but still have a good time. I’m not really qualified nor interested in passing judgment on any of these wider thematic elements, but I think I am qualified to dissemble the film as a film, and as a critic I am professionally obligated to see any picture which has generated such feverish debate and discussion. As I am ideologically opposed to reading fan fiction (especially plagiarized fan-fiction) I went into this relatively cold in the wake of some pretty terrible reviews, discreetly attending a furtive matinée screening, flushed with anticipation as even a real catastrophe can be howlingly good fun and a thoroughly satisfying few hours at the flicks.
Getting straight down to the action I am disappointed to rasp that no this isn’t as terrible as some have claimed, it’s certainly not a very good movie but it doesn’t even qualify as this year’s worst waste of celluloid space. First of all you can’t enlist A list production talent such as cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, The Avengers, We Need To Talk About Kevin) or soundtrack composer Danny Elfman without some veneer of quality, the former has graced the film with a seductive color palette grinding through a panoply of copacetic greys (of course) to flushed reds, the latter a perfectly serviceable musical accompaniment which never intrudes into the characters comfort zone. One of the films warning signs apart from the ridiculed source material was the presence of Kelly Marcel on scriptwriting duties, I thought Saving Mr. Banks was one of the most offensive films of recent years, guilty of relegating a fascinating historical figure to some frigid prude, subservient to Disney in a dishonest whitewash serving their corporate masters. Comprehensively lifting (so I’m told) the book structure into a Hollywood template doesn’t seem to have been an arduous task, there is a standard issue rom-com logic to the initial meeting and wooing of Christian and Anastasia, perforated with some deeply problematic character activities, grimace inducing lines of dialogue, and one particularly uncomfortable performance that we’ll get to shortly. The beating the film has received for sheer laugh-out loud incompetence doesn’t quite hold water as this is a handsomely mounted (pun utterly intended), professional piece of work, at least until the problems with the source text start to arise.
After a carefully engineered, self-reflective first hour during which it is patently obvious that director Sam Taylor Wood has a cunning approach to the inherently campy material slowly, inexorably the erotic charge deflates from the movie, and my mind begin to listlessly wonder on to more fascinating questions – I wonder how many seats this screen has? Hmm, I wonder how many steps it takes me to walk here from my flat? Both are simply fascinating subjects I’m sure you’ll agree. A regular presence on set was author E.L. James who served as an ardent gatekeeper of her laughably incompetent prose (causing some serious clashes on set), relaying the story of Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), a naïve graduate student who is sent to interview the enigmatic billionaire 27-year-old Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan)after her flatmate is stricken ill. A romance ensues with Grey acting in a fashion that would have you instantly arrested and sectioned in real life, as he harbours a dark sexual secret which Anastasia’s fledgling sexuality. Putting it quite simply Dornan has all the chutzpah of Patrick Bateman without the corpse littered charm, I don’t think I’ve seen a performer so utterly uncomfortable in a role he clearly loathes, playing a fucking asshole of the absolute nascent nadir, utterly obsessed with his own conquests and satisfaction at the expense of all and everyone else.
I was fascinated to learn that Dakota Johnson is the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, an actress of an earlier age whom of course was the victim of a horrendous sexual obsession from a powerful man wielding enormous wealth and influence, so there is an odd cinematic confluence occurring in this film as she suffers bewildering behavior that should have the audience gasping ‘you’re fucking kidding, right?’ Christian questions every relationship she has with every other male in her life, the implication being these threats to his prize are unacceptable. He lovingly breaks into her apartment, turns up completely non-stalkery at her job, showers her with lavishly inappropriate gifts and demands to be within communication reach at all times. When out getting wasted with her friends one night he arrives on the scene to ‘rescue’ her and orders her to never act in this fashion again, before moodily stripping to his waist and playing mournful midnight piano dirges from the penthouse of his corporate ziggurat. It’s an atrocity of behavior ripped bleeding from the manual of an abusive, controlling relationship which is simply squirm worthy embarrassing to watch, before he spirits her away in his personal helicopter for a midnight jaunt in swoon inducing fashion. OK, yeah, even I get it, it’s a fantasy, just a little amorous aphrodisiac – fine. Personally though even if you approach the film as a nonsense on the level of Pretty Woman or some other identikit Rom-Com formula engorged with a little dangerous kink this still leaves a very sour taste in the mouth, and even the funniest of reviews do little to cleanse the palette. The sex scenes are as tame as you’d expect from any mainstream studio product even with the R rating, and of course they follow they usual double standard of plenty of female nudity but no, (now how can I put this discreetly?) there’s no wanger sightings to equalize the genders. It’s all shot very tastefully and flatly, a perfume advert projected against opulent décor, a montage of grinding body parts that couldn’t be more vanilla if you stuck a icepick in it and called it Ice.
The contract scene is the ultimate personification and key to the entire film, where Christian and Anastasia sexily pontificate on the negotiated dimensions of their proposed dominant & submissive symbiosis. Tabled as a business meeting and shot by McGarvey with an intentional crepuscular glee the scene is funnier than it ought to be and deftly summarizes the entire romance, with a winning, querying punch line from the inquisitive Anastasia – ‘What’s a butt-plug?’ Here, finally is sordid evidence that the film has been fabricated as a contemporary satire, a film of transactions and commerce perverting the intimate and personal, of elitist billionaires instructing inferiors to bend and thrust to their every whim, of everything being brought to them and their every order breathlessly obeyed with no regard for others safety, security or well-being. Despite these fleeting pangs the film is sorely lacking in tittering temptation, to have actually made this entertaining it needed a Paul Verhoeven, as just one frame of the punishing glee of a Showgirls or a Basic Instinct would at least have got the blood pumping and aroused the temperature beyond a few idle laughs and a couple of nicely photographed scenes. I’ll just add to the chorus of like-minded critics that if you are in the mood for some erotic coaxed cinema then go and support a genuine treasure, The Duke Of Burgundy is playing in selected cinemas now. Fifty Shades Of Grey however is a tepid and icky puddle of passion, a sure sign that we don’t always get the films we want but the films we perversely deserve;