DRAMA: Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

Fifty Shades Darker (USA, 2017)
Directed by James Foley
Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Rita Ora

Anime critic Jacob Chapman was once asked whether he would ever review hentai (Japanese animated pornography, for those not in the know). He replied that he wouldn't because it was impossible to review porn objectively. Other genres, he argued, could be judged according to certain seemingly objective standards (a good comedy makes you laugh, a good horror movie make you scared and so on), whereas porn rises or falls (ha ha) purely on the preferences of the viewer. In praising or criticising any given piece of erotic content, one runs the risk of projecting one's own sexual tastes onto the material and, in doing so, putting rather more than is necessary out into the public sphere.
When reviewing erotic thrillers or dramas, therefore, one always has to assess any film on the basis of its structural and narrative integrity regardless of our more bestial responses to its salacious moments. Compared to its predecessor, Fifty Shades Darker may provide more by way of titillation, with a conscious effort to make the sex scenes more daring and ambitious (and more public) than before. But once these sections are taken out of the equation, the film becomes a very listless and lacklustre affair - it's an erotic drama which is occasionally erotic but never dramatic.
One of the biggest problems with the first film was the lack of agency afforded to Anastasia as a character - something which, it is claimed, she has more of in the books. Without any form of serious resistance (or anything more than mild reluctance) on her part, the film resembles an anaemic version of Dracula, with the mysterious rich gentleman preying on the virginal beauty. If we take this aspect in isolation, Fifty Shades Darker does improve on its predecessor, insofar as they are more scenes of Ana putting her foot down and wanting a relationship on her terms. But in the wider context of things, the film makes so many other steps backwards that this improvement becomes barely noticeable.
Fifty Shades Darker (Darker hereafter) suffers from the increased role of E. L. James in its production. Whether you like her work or not, adaptations can often suffer from the author being too close to the work and stifling the screenwriter's creativity; as I mentioned in my review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, novelists who get involved in film-making so often lack the visual invention to match their verbal acrobatics. Kelly Marcel's script for the first film was largely flat and often risible, but you occasionally got a glimmer of effort being made to shape the material for the screen rather than kowtow to the author. This film's screenplay, on the other hand, comes from James' husband Niall Leonard; it feels more carefully controlled, so that the entire exercise becomes a means of indulging James' ego rather than serving the material or - heaven forbid - entertaining the audience.
This increased sense of control is also reflected in the choice of director. Sam Taylor-Johnson didn't see eye to eye with James during the production of the first film, so it isn't any real surprise that she decided to pull out of shooting the sequels back to back. Watching the film did feel like wading knee-deep through wallpaper paste, but you did at least get the impression of the director and cast trying to go against the tide of the material and emerge with something half-decent. With James Foley behind the camera as a workmanlike safe pair of hands, the characters have stopped wading and decided to lie flat on their backs on top, as the waves slowly drag them away. The film feels slow, ponderous and devoid of any pep when either or both of its leading players are fully clothed.
The sex scenes in Darker are an illustration of the film's central problem, which the increased role of James and the kid gloves approach of Foley both hint towards. Watching the scenes in isolation, they are decently assembled in terms of the editing and music compared to those in the first film, which often came across as clinical and awkward. The substance of the sex scenes is still tame by modern standards (the Emmanuelle series or The Story of O were far racier than this), and logic regularly takes a back seat; the film doesn't just not get how S&M relationships work, it doesn't always understand how ben wa balls operate. If you watched the sex scenes on their own, they may or may not do something for you - but they are not integrated with the film as a whole, and that's a big problem.
In order for an erotic thriller or erotic drama to work, it has to have a compelling story which the sex can either interrupt (in a bad film) or be a somewhat integral part (in a good one). The career of Andrew Davies (who adapted Tipping the Velvet and Fanny Hill for the BBC) is welcome evidence of this. You don't need the most cerebral or original story in the book - Basic Instinct isn't exactly Chinatown in its complexity - but if you don't find a way to integrate the nudity into the plot you end up with a film which feels like two different stories incongruously zipped together. If you don't care about the story, you may as well be watching porn; while Darker can titillate, it cannot captivate.
Once you take the sex scenes out of Darker, it becomes a boring, overwrought and very waxy soap opera, in which much is talked about but very little actually happens. Much of the action plays out like an episode of Dallas; here, as there, we get a lot of rich people swanning around doing rich people things and bickering over the tiniest detail. The ball scene is an awkward meld of Cinderella and Eyes Wide Shut, but without the wonder of the former or the creeping sense of dread in the latter. You may have a couple of moments of being impressed by the costumes or enjoying the music, but beyond that there is little to sustain our attention.
Even by the low standards of the first film, Darker is a poorly written piece of work. All the character issues that were present in the first film are magnified here; the more stuff Christian buys to impress Ana and convince her that he's changed, the more creepy and suffocating he becomes. For every moment where we are let in to some part of his subconscious and given some reason to question our initial suspicions about him, part of us is always on edge and wanting to leave. But even if the characters aren't an issue for you, the film is choppily plotted and quickly descends into travelogue footage; as in some of the weaker James Bond films, people go to exotic places for no apparent reason, stay there for hardly any time at all and then leave with no explanation.
This latter problem - exemplified by the section involving the helicopter crash - only serves to emphasise how stake-free the film feels, and how much its attempts at generating tension or emotional weight fall flat. It's easy to make cheap jokes about how the series started out as Twilight fan fiction, but the script for Darker plays out like fan fiction, insofar as it goes to ridiculous extremes to put the author's chosen couple together - the results of which are regularly an anticlimax. The arbitrary changes in location also prevent any real chemistry from building between the characters, and the attempts to bringing out a darker tone (such as in the opening scenes) feel either desperate or just too jarring to be effective.
The final aspect which prevents Darker from being even a passable erotic thriller is the performances. The on-screen relationship between Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson was always awkward, but here the awkwardness is increased by the plot's attempts at raising the stakes. Johnson's irritating breathy delivery is even more annoying here, and her attempts at sounding firm or frightened are unconvincing. Dornan, equally, is too deadpan and often seems to abruptly zone out in the middle of a scene. Where before the pair made an effort in spite of the material, here they are merely going through the motions. Mind you, they aren't the only ones who are unimpressive; Rita Ora is grating, Eloise Mumford is uninspiring, and Kim Basinger looks and performs like a waxwork animatronic. It's a million miles from her work in 9 1/2 Weeks, in terms of either raunchiness or screen presence.
Fifty Shades Darker is a dismal and dreary sequel which does away with most of the few qualities the first film possessed. In Foley's hands, with James looming over him in the background, the film quickly descends into a series of occasionally titillating sex scenes intercut with dull, poorly staged and entirely non-compelling character drama. It's not offensively bad enough to be terrible, but it is deeply unmemorable, leaving one feeling hollow, depressed and more than a little short-changed.

NEXT FILM: Casino Royale (2006)