Unfortunately for the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, a solid cast, good director and unique premise only help to expose the inherent weaknesses of the source novel.
In Fifty Shades of Grey we follow the strange odyssey of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a literature student whose journalistic favor for a sick friend results in a fateful meeting with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a handsome young billionaire.
Christian is taken with Anastasia after their very first meeting, and soon inserts his willful presence into her life. But as her mysterious suitor begins to open up his iron-clad personality, Ana discovers that Christian’s “singular” predilections for control, pleasure and sometimes punishment may kill any hopes of them having a normal and fulfilling relationship.
As I often say: a movie can fail for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s the performance of the actors; sometimes, a lack of directorial vision; and sometimes, the premise just cannot sustain itself through an entire cinematic journey. Unfortunately for the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, a solid cast, good director and unique premise only help to expose the inherent weaknesses of the source novel – leaving this film (like its central romance) doomed from the start.
From a cinematic standpoint, director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) does an admirable job with the visual composition of the film. As a movie, Fifty Shades has a competent and well-crafted visual shorthand, complete with thematic motifs (doors opening and closing); color palettes (black, white, passion red and of course, ambiguous gray); rich tone courtesy of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Avengers, Godzilla); and some impressive sequences that make this erotic drama uniquely qualified for big-screen viewing.
More to the point: in Taylor-Johnson’s hands, there is actual artistry and meaning brought to the “controversially” titillating subject matter the book series is famous for. The handling of the BDSM sex play is dreadfully cliched in terms of structure (3 heated romps and a final dramatic one); however, the actual presentation of the “love scenes” recalls the style of director Adrian Lyne (Unfaithful, Nine 1/2 Weeks), favoring artsy close-ups of human form, curve and the intimate sensations of touch, feel and response, rather than the raw carnality seen in something like Basic Instinct (my generation’s landmark erotic thriller movie).
On the flip-side, director Paul Verhoeven clearly had a winking eye on the pulpy, trashy story that was Basic Instinct: Taylor-Johnson and screenplay writer Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Terra Nova) show no such self-awareness, presenting the material in E.L. James’ novel with an almost fatal slavishness to the written material. Hearing the dialogue out loud (or witnessing some of the awkward melodramatic moments shoehorned into the material), it may be hard for even the most ardent fans of the book to deny the lack of quality in the writing.
The original DNA of James’ novel (which started out as self-published Twilight fan-fiction) is also all too apparent in the movie. From the Bella/Edward “dilemma” (loving her = hurting her), to the silly “love triangle” with friend-zone Jacob (here renamed José), the Twilight parallels are painfully apparent, leaving us with a copy of an original that wasn’t that masterful or clever to begin with. Fifty Shades of Grey is a minefield of unintentional laughs and awkward acknowledgement of the silly material – even within its target demographic. Worse than that, at two hours it feels draggingly boring in its teasing revolutions around the “Will she? / won’t she?” choice Anastasia is weighing.
To their credit, stars Dakota Johnson (Ben and Kate) and Jamie Dornan (The Fall) do an admirable job bringing their respective characters to life. Johnson turns out to be feisty, likable and surprisingly funny as Anastasia – which only makes it that much harder to buy some of the sappy and downtrodden decisions the story requires her to make. The thin melodrama of James’ story often feels at odds with the spirited and independent version of Anastasia that Johnson creates onscreen.
In Dornan’s case, it’s clear that someone saw his complicated, nuanced and frightening turn as a violent serial killer in the UK TV series The Fall and attempted to port that persona over to the Christian Grey character. As it stands, Dornan’s stoicism, stillness, and quiet confidence really do translate well to this new character; it’s up to a different crowd to decide on his qualifications as a sculpted heartthrob, but as a performer, he’s well above having to deliver cringe-worthy lines like “I’m fifty shades of f@*#ed up.”
Surrounding the principal two are a lineup of solid actors who all get very little to do (at least in this first installment). Max Martini (Pacific Rim) barely gets a word in as ‘Mr. Grey’s’ driver, Taylor; odder still, we barely get to know the ensemble of Luke Grimes (True Blood), UK singer Rita Ora, or Marcia Gay Harden (The Newsroom), who play Christian’s family members. Even Anastasia’s entourage – BFF Kate (The River‘s Eloise Mumford) and friend zone member José (Victor Rasuk from How to Make It in America) – are barely given any shades of personality at all. Maybe in the sequels?
As it stands, Fifty Shades of Grey movie is going to make a lot of people wonder how this story was ever a “Worldwide Phenomenon” worth all those books sold. Going forward, the films should probably veer away from the thin source material and use the collection of talent on hand to create something deeper and more worthy of cinema.
Simple curiosity will indeed lure a large viewership into the theater; however, in an era where any and all sexual taboos are but a keyword search away from prying eyes, Fifty Shades of Grey offers very little to see, and even less that excites.
Fifty Shades of Grey is now playing in theaters. It is 125 minutes long, and is Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language