Synopsis: Literature student Anastasia Steele’s life changes forever when she meets handsome, yet tormented, billionaire Christian Grey.
Stars: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Victor Rasuk, Marcia Gay Harden, Callum Keith Rennie, Jennifer Ehle, Max Martini, Luke Grimes, Eloise Mumford, Rita Ora
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Running Length: 125 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Sex sells. Period. End of story. The enormous (and enormously baffling) success of the Fifty Shades trilogy of novels has proved that statement to be true since its wide-spread release in 2012. The books became a worldwide sensation, with mass-market paperbacks being passed from friend to friend who would then discreetly devour the lascivious tale of S&M eroticism between a virginal naïf and her darkly troubled business magnate of a boyfriend during their work commutes.
Originally conceived as, get this, Twilight fan fiction, author E.L. James split her 1500 page (!) opus into three books. One genius move of self-publishing later and James is sitting on the kind of lighting in a bottle literary goldmine usually reserved for boy wizards and heroic female survivalists. The trouble with this, though, is that James’ prose is so clumsy and interminable that I spent more time rolling my eyes at the overuse of words like “medulla oblongata” and “inner-goddess” than I did trying to reverse the effects of a flush faced over the absolutely filthy sex scenes.
It seems that James had a mission to have at least one female orgasm per chapter (which comes close to pushing the novel into the sci-fi/fantasy genre) and though early encounters between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey admittedly have an occasionally effective erotic spark to them, the couplings soon turn into standard trash lit. We haven’t even discussed the S&M aspect of the story and by the time the riding crops, leather cuffs, flogging devices, and various other toys I just can’t bring myself to write about, the novel goes to a dark place that feels deliberately discomforting.
So…needless to say the filmmakers behind the big screen adaption of Fifty Shades of Grey had a challenge on their hands. How do you take NC-17 material and coax it into a more marketable R rating? The answer is simple – cut 2/3 of the sex scenes, soften the S&M elements, and don’t require the leading man to get fully naked.
The biggest compliment I can pay to Fifty Shades of Grey is that director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) have elevated the material from goofy smut to classy trash. Taylor-Johnson’s direction isn’t fussy and she gets good performances out of her cast…even if our leading man feels like the second choice for the job that he was. The screenplay from Marcel is a nicely condensed version of James 514-page novel, keeping some of the ludicrous exchanges between Steele and Grey while removing most of the ghastly bits of dialogue James had her characters blurting out. While the movie covers all the bases of the novel and audiences will get introduced to nearly every character mentioned within (even casting horribly wigged singer Rita Ora for a two line cameo as Grey’s sister), there’s more focus onscreen than there ever was on the page.
Casting the film was no easy matter and when original Christian Grey Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim) got cold feet (er, sorry…developed “scheduling conflicts”) Irish actor Jamie Dornan took his place. The whole film I was struck by how much Dornan looked like other actors (Eric Bana, Ryan Phillippe, Joshua Jackson, Colin Firth, depending on the angle/lighting) and that’s problematic because as written the character should be a singular vision. Desperately trying to hide his accent while relaying his bondage proclivities to his wide-eyed potential sex slave, there’s an overall side-stepping feel to Dornan’s performance…right down to the actor’s well-documented contract clause nixing full-frontal nudity which would seem to be necessary for the film/character.
Dakota Johnson (Need for Speed, The Five-Year Engagement, 21 Jump Street), however, has no such problems with the nudity and it should be noted that the actress handles herself and the role with more professionalism than it deserved. When I first heard Johnson had beat out the likes of Shailene Woodley, Imogen Poots, Felicity Jones, and Elizabeth Olsen (if you can believe the rumors) I was curious to see how the relative unknown would work out. True, Johnson has been the star of her own television show and had several movies to her credit but did the progeny of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson have the star quality to pull it all off?
To that question I’d give an unqualified “yes”…because Johnson takes a frustrating literary character and brings her to life with believable earnestness. As written, Anastasia Steele is all gee-whiz and golly-gee but in Johnson’s hands there’s now reasonable merit to her naiveté so much so that audiences can understand why she’s drawn back to a man that seems to take realistic pleasure in her literal pain. Johnson channels her mother’s sex-kitten soft speak when necessary but overall makes the character just green enough so that by the time she utters the phrase “What’s a butt plug?” (in the film’s best scene, a sexual contract negotiation) we just want to give her a hug.
Director Taylor-Johnson works well with her leading lady to make the explicit sex scenes (totaling about 20 minutes of the 125 minute film) not seem like the scuzzy sludge they could have been under the eye of a different director or had the production company let the film fall into NC-17 territory. Though frequently in her birthday suit, Johnson’s body isn’t objectified in any seedy way…unlike the absolute humiliation Katherine Waterson was subjected to in Paul Thomas Anderson’s awful Inherent Vice.
Just like the book, the film will come under fire from violence against women groups and those that can’t get their minds around people living the S&M lifestyle. Personally, the world of dominants and submissives is so far away from any reality I can imagine I don’t feel I can fully lodge an opinion on it. Those that do practice BDSM have condemned the book as unsafe and I can’t say I blame them because the movie doesn’t concern itself with the lasting consequences of what Grey is asking of Steele. I guess I’m just trying to take the movie for the experience that it was and, save for a horrifying sequence at the film’s climax, I wasn’t as outraged as many will be.
Could they ever have made a great movie out of a bad book? Probably not. How about an ok movie out of a bad book? Now, that’s a goal more attainable and for the most part it succeeds. Our screening audience balked at the abrupt ending but likely these were people that didn’t read the book as evidenced by the elderly grandmother next to me that asked her companion if “the author will ever write a sequel”. All involved are already on board for the follow-up should the film be the boffo success many believe it will be – I say go for it…but please, don’t split the last one into two parts.