Fifty Shades of Grey, 2015
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.
Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, and Victor Rasuk
Literature student Anastasia Steele’s life changes forever when she meets handsome, yet tormented, billionaire Christian Grey.
When a film isn’t screened to the press, it’s usually an indication that it’s not very good and the studio are trying to avoid negative reviews before the film is released. Films like Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie or Movie 43 are some recent examples where a lack of press screenings and lousy filmmaking go hand in hand, but in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey it feels like Universal feared most press would go in with pre-conceived notions that film was rubbish before giving it a chance. The Twilight series of movies suffered from the same problem. It’s a franchise about as popular with the Internet as Michael Bay is with Transformers fans, so a lot of critics go in with pre-judges and then rate the film accordingly.
So, was Fifty Shades of Grey not screened for critics because the press would give it a hard time (no pun intended) without a real chance, or was it not screened because it is complete tosh? Probably a bit of both really.
Fifty Shades of Grey is not the worst movie you will ever lay eyes on. Not this year, not any year. It does not glorify abuse to women, it is not so sexually explicit it will make nuns cry and it’s not poorly-written trash based off a book that was, in essence, poorly written trash. Instead, Fifty Shades of Grey is a well-tuned and finely acted look at the formation of a relationship built around one’s desires for his BDSM wishes and another who has fallen in love with a man who simply cannot be changed regardless of how hard she tries. It does not encourage domestic abuse or female-slavery, because BDSM is not about domestic abuse or sexual slavery, and while it is a film that is erotic in nature, it’s actually quite tame in execution.
Although, at times, it can be poorly written.
The biggest obstacle that Fifty Shades of Grey needed to overcome was that it was based on a book written by a grown woman, but read like it was scribbled by a child. E.L. James herself has admitted that she is not a writer, which is evident in her book, and is just a fanfiction writer who came good. Indeed Fifty Shades of Grey was originally Twilight fanfaction that became so popular James was able to charge for it before some publishers took note and turned her into a literary millionaire. But where the movie succeeds is that it’s able to remove all of James’ dreadful writing and instead present a visual, more grown up version that extenuates the positives (the story) and hides the negatives (Anastasia’s poorly worded first person narrative). It fleshes out her two-dimensional characters and gradually builds Ana’s sexual exploration rather than blow its load in the opening twenty minutes and expect the audience to accept it. Gone is the shy virgin who becomes BDSM queen because she was pleasured in a lift and instead is replaced with a shy virgin who falls under a charming man’s spell and gradually tries to accept his world.
Hangovers from the source material are present which are often deterrents to the film’s enjoyment. Anastasia’s need to bite her lip is not only clumsy but interferes and distracts from Dakota Johnson’s solid performance as are her nervous moments of laughter. There are also some truly awful lines of dialogue that sound like they could have only come from the mouth of E.L. James herself (with some scenes containing laughably silly lines) and even some of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction is unintentionally hilarious. The use of music in Fifty Shades of Grey is appalling and incredibly intrusive which ruins some of the movie’s stronger moments as Taylor-Johnson opts for studio recorded tracks from Ellie Goulding and Beyoncé rather than use Danny Elfman’s much better score.
It’s a credit then to Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan that they can overcome a lot of the movie’s faults. Johnson is the strongest one of the two and she really sells this naive girl with the least amount of sexual experience possible falling into a world which is far beyond her means, but that’s not to say Dornan isn’t her equal. His steely stare and quiet charm are very effective in his portrayal of the character and is fairly convincing in the moments where he has to play the dominant party. Full kudos should also be given to Johnson who never looks uncomfortable in her nude sequences (of which there are many) but it seems odd that Dornan spends most of the movie fully clothed. An argument could be made that this was Taylor-Johnson’s attempt at symbolism of their relationship, but one feels it was probably more to do with contract agreements. You’d think with an adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, there would be more titillation for the female audience members.
When writing this review, I did want to use the line, “there won’t be a dry eye in the house, or a dry seat for that matter” but sadly Fifty Shades of Grey is all too tame. Remarkable that it was certified with an 18-certificate (though not surprising given the BBFC’s twitchy nature around this subject matter) as there is mild titillation throughout, but nothing harder than what you would see in the average episode of Spartacus. There is also a lot less foul language than your typical Seth Rogen comedy and the nudity is no more explicit than Under The Skin. Those who wanted to see a full adaptation of the book’s more sordid tales might be disappointed about what’s on offer, but it’s gradual build of sexual acts is actually improves the film in terms of storytelling. It just seems harsh to give it an 18 rating when it didn’t really deserve one. France probably shouldn’t have given it a 12 though, but that’s the French for you.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a dumbed down version of The Duke of Burgundy, but it’s less pretentious and smug about itself which makes it slightly more likeable. At times it’s laughably silly and some of the directorial choices are flat out ridiculous, but the story, character and performances might surprise some of those who doubted it. It won’t win everyone round, but it’s a lot better than many expected. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty bloody good. Totally flawed and not worthy of any accolades, but pretty good overall.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the host of the Flickering Myth Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeWritesStuff.
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