DRAMA: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Fifty Shades of Grey (USA, 2015)
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle

It's hard to think of another film in recent times which has caused more headaches for film fans than Fifty Shades of Grey. Long before its release, cruelly and cynically timed for Valentine's Day, the internet was flooded with more casting rumours, whingeing fans and craven speculation about how raunchy it would be than you would get at a decade's worth of ComicCons. In a frighteningly short space of time, E. L. James' trilogy has become all-pervasive in our culture: it's been embraced, over-indulged, parodied and run into the ground in everything from greetings cards to books about sheds.
As film fans, we always strive to wade through the Augean stables of ill-deserved reputation. While many in the media are content to wallow in meaningless hype, we aspire to rise above it and approach any given offering with a refreshing dose of perspective. We may not always be the rivers that can wash away all the filth from said stables, but you'd be surprised what a few little streams can achieve. In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, the biggest surprise is not how far it goes; on the contrary, the film's biggest problem is that, both narratively and sexually, it's pretty tame.
Before we dive into the sexual politics of the film, it is worth addressing the reputation of the film within a wider context. An awful lot has been written about the book and the film purporting to encourage or condone abuse towards women, something which can never and should never be excused for the sake of entertainment. The concerns of campaigners like Natalie Collins, who say that the film "romanticised and celebrated" domestic violence, should be taken seriously; we should not try to devalue or demean real victims of abuse just because their life experience doesn't gel with our attitude towards a piece of media. Equally, however, it is possible to have a positive experience of the film while being mindful of these concerns, as well as noting those voices, like star Dakota Johnson, who believe that there is an emphasis within the story on consent and empowerment.
People I have encountered who have read the book (including my fiancee) have led me to believe that Anastasia enjoys more agency in the source material than is immediately evident on screen. They hold that there are more sequences of her saying no to Christian without it resulting in punishment, with more emphasis being on the boundaries put in place by mutual consent. This suggests that Fifty Shades of Grey primarily fails because it is a poor adaptation rather than anything else; certainly the final scene between our two protagonists is bizarrely cut short. But considering the unintentional hilarity that results from much of the dialogue and its delivery, I have a hard time believing that the book is a masterpiece by comparison.
As with many films which tread the fine line between erotic drama and straight-up pornography, Fifty Shades of Grey wants to market itself on the raunchiness of its sex scenes - and like most of these kinds of films, it comes up short. Whatever is described in the book, the fact that these kinds of scenes generated such a furore is more a damning indictment of how prudish our society remains than anything else. The sex scenes in Basic Instinct or even Goldeneye are steamier than anything here, and in most cases they are better written too. there is nothing that James attempts here that wasn't handled a hundred times better years earlier by the likes of D. H. Lawrence and Anais Nin.
No matter what the trailers would have you believe, there isn't a great deal in Fifty Shades of Grey which merited it being seen as a top-end 18 certificate. Notwithstanding the false advertising on the part of the studio, it is good that the film is at least trying to focus on drama and character development, rather than just knitting together a series of sex scenes with pointless dialogue. But all the scenes where flesh is present are shot all too tastefully, with little full frontal nudity or associated swearing. Far be it from me to demand more flesh on screen in a culture already sexualised to the hilt, but if a film claiming to be this risqué can be passed uncut, then it's clearly not worthy of its reputation.
Another big Hollywood problem which lumbers the film is its lack of understanding regarding how S&M relationships work. Hollywood has consistently misunderstood the dynamic of S&M, believing that the sadist's job is to beat the living shit out of the masochist, while the masochist just takes the pain and does what they are told regardless of whether they benefit. The reality is that the submissive partner is always in control, whether through safe words or pre-arranged routines, and the pleasure is more mutual and evenly spread. To this extent, the film does rob Anastasia of some agency; we get the contract scene, but too few other examples of her exerting the influence which she technically possesses.
Because of both its relatively tame sex scenes and its lack of S&M knowledge, the film fails to be a meaningful or compelling examination of sex and its role in relationships. In my review of The Look of Love, I said "it is possible to make a film which will arouse an audience in more ways than one, provided that said arousal is supported by a discussion of the issues that surround it." But instead of using its reputation or characters as a means to discuss sexual issues, the film just sits there, giving us more of the same for an hour and a half without a clear sense of direction to its action. This is to The Look of Love what The Da Vinci Code was to The Ninth Gate: well-meaning incompetence, rather than active contempt.
Much has been made of the fact that this film, unlike Basic Instinct or other erotic films of note, was scripted and directed by women. Sam Taylor-Johnson's debut feature Nowhere Boy had a lot of interesting features, and screenwriter Kelly Marcel did a great job on Saving Mr. Banks. But while it's interesting from an industrial standpoint, the film doesn't consciously reflect the talent behind it; it still feels like a film made by a committee who were both afraid of hurting the fans and coy about the subject matter.
Despite Marcel's good work elsewhere, the script for Fifty Shades of Grey is downright risible. Some lines are laugh-out-loud poor, such as Ana asking "What are buttplugs?" during the negotiation. But most of the time the dialogue is laughable because of how inept and dull it makes the story. Both Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are clearly trying to make something out of a script which gives them precious little in terms of character construction and little development outside of the bedroom. But even then they seem awkward and lacking chemistry, with all of Johnson's lines being delivered in a irritatingly breathy whisper and Dornan being inconsistent in his temper and charisma.
One aspect of Fifty Shades of Grey which hasn't been so widely discussed is its relationship to vampire fiction. The fact that James' work started out as Twilight fan fiction has been picked up by many wanting to make a cheap joke about its quality, or lack thereof. But the connections run much deeper than this, with both the book and the film having unintentional undertones which tie them very strongly to Dracula.
Both Bram Stoker's magnum opus and Taylor-Johnson's film have exactly the same character dynamic: a rich aristocrat or other wealthy figure who preys upon poor, vulnerable and virginal women in awe of him, cementing a bond which costs both parties. Fifty Shades of Grey seems unaware of this comparison, but because it fails to properly depict a balance of power between the characters, these similarities do come to the fore. The references to Thomas Hardy are also very telling; Tess of the d'Urbervilles uses a similar dynamic of the rich, cynical, urban man having his wicked way with the simple, rural woman in both a literal and metaphorical rape of the countryside. Suffice to say, Taylor-Johnson doesn't attempt any detailed analysis of this, and the film lacks the political depth that Paul Morrissey achieved on Andy Warhol's Dracula.
With all of this taking into account, you have to give Taylor-Johnson credit for what she has managed to salvage. The film still looks very sleek, with a cold metallic quality nicely contrasted by all the exterior shots full of foliage. The soundtrack is pretty good too, though Annie Lennox's rendition of 'I Put A Spell On You' is far more spellbindingly memorable than Ellie Goulding's contribution. Most importantly, Taylor-Johnson strives to keep the characters central to the action; even if the performances are not the most convincing, we always get the impression that this is a film about people and not entirely about sex.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a surprisingly tame and somewhat disappointing adaptation which neither delivers when it needs to nor turns out to be so-bad-it's-good. Taylor-Johnson strives to keep the characters central and tease out development and intrigue where she can, but she's fighting a losing battle against poor dialogue, flat performances and a peculiar coyness about the subject matter. Whatever happens with the sequels, this remains a sub-par effort which doesn't linger long after viewing.


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