For a film based on a book, based on a fanfiction, based on a film, based on a book that was based on a dream, Fifty Shades of Grey somehow manages to toe the line of originality.
You know, I had this whole review written in my head, populated with witty comparisons to Twilight and poetic prose waxing philosophical on the end of intelligent cinema and clever screenwriting. I had written down the “F” grade with such confidence, it was in red ink. I imagine I was not alone among critics, and the only difference is I still approached Sam Taylor-Johnson’s (Nowhere Boy) Fifty Shades of Grey with an open mind. And wouldn’t you know it, I had to start this review from square one (except for that opening sentence, which was always set in stone), inexplicably.
Unassuming ingénue Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) – I’ll wait for the giggles to subside re: the character names – fills in for ailing best friend and roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford), interviewing titan of industry, university benefactor, and all around control freak Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the graduation edition of the school newspaper. That’s university folks — this not a tale of statutory inappropriate relationships, blessedly. When something about the young lady’s awkwardness entices the playboy, he invites her into a world of alternate sexual adventures and down a BDSM rabbit hole (minus the “M”).
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel polishes the E.L. James kindergarten-level prose into a whip-smart (heh) script that never takes itself too seriously, finding the humor in all situations in a way Adrian Lyne could never appreciate. When the situation calls for it, however, her characters are frank in a refreshingly adult way, speaking natural dialogue that is far less cinematic than most films, highlighting realism over fantasy. There are moments where the book dialogue wins out, consequently – they are obvious, giggle-worthy lines spoken with silly, heightened drama. Luckily, those are few and far between.
Sam Taylor-Johnson chooses to set her characters in large, open-spaces, signifying the distance between the two main characters’ worlds. A great chasm exists between their relationship ideals. Christian is distant, cold, quantifiable; Ana, relying much more on her emotions, is open, warm, and free. The cool-hued cinematography by Seamus McGarvey coupled with the David Wasco production design are a visual feast. Taylor-Johnson’s mishmash of romantic comedy norms and suspense film tropes comes close to actual innovation: defying expectations, this is not a sexy film. Taylor-Johnson’s version is a tale of obsession, compulsion, and — ultimately — war. Anastasia is not exactly unaware of her effect on Christian; as he pulls back, she attempts to control him by withholding herself and giving away only the parts of herself he can understand until she pulls him into her own orbit. The roles of Dominant and Submissive change so often, even Christian is unaware he’s being manipulated. The film’s sexy, fantasy moments that are so played up in the trailers and posters only exist in Ana’s world; the spaces tend to be shot more intimately, smaller somehow. The characters are forced to exist closer when in tight quarters. When we are in Christian’s world, when the sex becomes more about need and fulfillment — less about coupling and amour — the sets are darker, less enticing, almost scary.
It must be stated that a film delving into sexual obsession reveals very little skin – as if ashamed of its own intimacy. Anything that happens in the “playroom” is controlled, clinical, but shot in a way that is nearly chaste. Anyone aware with Taylor-Johnson’s work would understand her fearlessness in filming the human body, but she’s limited here by a studio out for the dollar over the art. Universal/Focus Features needed the “R” rating, and a double-standard where violence is profitable and sex is frightening, very little “down-there” is exhibited. A restraint that constrains “realism” is one of those things that actually adds to the sex appeal and fantasy aspect, more than the neurotic reality in the film.
Dakota Johnson gives Ana real gravitas, capturing each scene she is in. In stills released before the premiere, I was not sure that she could handle the innocent sex appeal needed for the character, but Johnson rises to the (legitimate) challenge, playing naïve at times, aggressive when called for, and always conscious of the material. Jamie Dornan has been criticized for a “wooden performance” (heh), but I think — as would become the norm for this film — that it is much more complicated and intricate. Dornan does seem to struggle with his American accent early on (the actor is Irish) but falls into a rhythm by his second scene. Dornan plays Christian as confident but standoffish, oft shrinking in Ana’s presence, which only points out the hold she has on him. When his control slips in the final “playroom” (where Christian keeps all of his, ahem, toys) scene, we can see him relax into his compulsion. Dornan wears it on his face and in his entire presence, completely absorbing Christian. It’s his true triumph in the film. The supporting cast are all adept at their work, even given little screen time. It is obvious everyone knew this trilogy would continue, and even if it didn’t, they approached their work with great care.
The music is frankly stunning, adding another layer to the sophistication exhibited by all involved. A Danny Elman score coupled with a soundtrack supervised by Dana Sano paces the dreamlike, flowing editing by Anna V. Coates & Lisa Gunning. Until the film’s steady build goes off the rails in the last thirty minutes or so, there’s rarely a sour note from scene to scene. Unfortunately, the filmmakers – or whoever makes such decisions – rely too heavily on the book’s denouement; the final, epic moments should have wrapped the film up about a half hour sooner. However, the penultimate trip to the playroom does play into Christian’s compulsion, and while we observers are shouting, “just get on with it already!” there remains a sense of need for the characters to finish out this dance, tedium be damned.
It’s no surprise that a film all about control has become a hot button issue, with feminists and men purporting to protect the weaker female sex who could not possibly know what they’re salivating over. Let me enlighten you, then: for those who have merely read the book Fifty Shades of Grey or the synopsis of the film, the movie is much more complicated. Marcel and Taylor-Johnson take great care to warn the viewer that the Christian/Anastasia romance is not one to be emulated or championed. Their tumultuous affair is much more about a power play than sex and love. Two people so interested in control, willing to abdicate such needs as each falls deeper into obsession with the other. This is not a love story, and Taylor-Johnson smartly portrays the deep connection without prejudice, offering the viewer the chance to decide how to define the relationship. Neither Christian nor Anastasia have ever been in love, so would either party recognize it if it existed? When the word is uttered in the film, it is one of sadness and loss; one of realization that if this is love, maybe no one should ever fall.
Much has been made of the final words spoken in the film. Author E.L. James lobbied for the final words to be “Stop. No!” much to Taylor-Johnson and Marcel’s chagrin. The latter wanted the safe word “red” to be the last word resonating the space between films. This is a struggle about who ultimately wins the battle in this war. If the last word is “no,” Ana has won this round, proving to Christian that his world is not exactly for her. If the word is “red,” Christian maintains control. I feel both are wrong, actually. (And to be fair, two more words are spoken after “no,” but they are much more about a book end.) The final word should have been “red;” however, it should have been spoken by Christian, and if you see the film, you’ll understand why. It was a missed opportunity, but one I imagine will be remedied in the next film, if it follows the trilogy’s timeline.
Fifty Shades is a self-aware, genre-bending picture that is both smartly conscious of history and the rabid fanbase of the source material. While the film would have benefited from more careful editing and further exploration of the created world, I’d still declare it a success. Not for everyone, it will nevertheless serve as crowd-pleaser, and maybe a lesson in prudent criticism and approaching every film with an open mind.