There are moments of genuine shame that stay with you. Not your average moments of regret, but the ones that even at the time make you think less of yourself. A few linger in my mind if I let them. Getting cajoled into nasty playground taunting of some kid who didn’t deserve it. Lying to a loved one out of cowardice. That time I handed a hotdog covered in seagull shit to a stranger’s child and walked off. And, most recently, booking tickets to see Fifty Shades Of Grey. Confirming my bank details and hitting send, I felt it in my throat. A light gagging sensation. But I’d done it. And I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it so you don’t have to.
And you really don’t have to.
But here’s the thing. The unvarnished, unsexy truth about the title that’s on everybody’s lips. If you do go and see it… it’s not gonna be the worst thing in the world. For all the water-cooler talk, the reams of op-head pieces, the scathing reviews and the (seemingly justified) jokes about how bad the material is… This movie is thoroughly average, slightly dull and largely inoffensive. The shame I mentioned before? That’s not shame over the subject matter; it’s the shame of handing over my hard-earned cash to a monster franchise that’s largely thought of as just… plain… naff.
Where I work there’s a well-thumbed copy of the first part of E.L. James’ notorious trilogy in the break area, abandoned (wisely?) on a window sill. A few of us occasionally open it at random on lunch and read a few lines out of context. And they are all always, always dreadful. So what? The book’s badly written. That’s nothing new. And it’s not as though our above game really gives it fair chance. What of the film, then?
Before we get to the contentious points regarding the central relationship it is worth noting that, regardless of this, the film’s main creative drivers (source material, screenplay, director) are all women. An encouraging if all-too-rare confluence. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson makes sure the movie looks the part; it’s slick, clean, clinical, occasionally pedestrian but nothing worse than that. Screenwriter Kelly Marcel, meanwhile, seems to have had the toughest job. So yes, there are some hammy lines in here that one assumes survived the culling process from the original text, as well as more than a few face-palm moments (on being presented with a car: “Christian, that’s a car!”), but by and large Fifty Shades of Grey escapes cringe-comedy of the so-bad-it’s-good stripe. If that’s what you’re after then Jupiter Ascending is still in theatres.
We have Dakota Johnson embodying E.L. James’ everywoman Anastasia Steele. Initially mousy and dithering, Johnson quickly turns this around, presenting Steele as an occasionally feisty, frequently assertive young woman. She doesn’t take bullshit (at least, not on first serving). Opposite her as billionaire business tycoon Christian Grey is the ironically less-confident Jamie Doran. Displaying the same range of facial expressions as Emmet from The Lego Movie, Doran’s Grey is a whole host of problems; moody, seemingly joyless, stroppy and entitled. Following a nonsensical introduction whereby Steele interviews him on behalf of her housemate (why was that again?), the two strike-up an uneasy relationship in which Grey quickly starts alternately laying down the law and presenting Steele with lavish gifts (remember that bit about the car?). But – spoiler alert – he has some kinks up his sleeve. And a contract. A contract you’re going to hear about for 90 solid minutes.
To its credit, the movie keeps this set-up cute for about an hour. Any budding relationship worth it’s salt can build narrative momentum, and the film’s peak is either Steele’s drunken phone conversation with Grey early on or the absurdly lit business meeting they have together to iron out the finer points of Grey’s contract of ownership over her. The second hour is more problematic, as the question of the contract stalls any and all progression, save for scenes which compound Grey as a troubled, manipulative jackass. Though vague references are made to a difficult childhood, any genuine attempts to explain his motivations are briskly swept aside, presumably for a later installment. The upshot of this is that it’s hard to respect a man who seems, at this stage, merely selfish and abusive, pressuring Steele constantly and behaving, well, rather like an insistent stalker. The sticking point with Fifty Shades of Grey is not that it depicts a BDSM relationship; it’s that it doesn’t seem to depict a healthy, mutually respectful one.
But neither does it depict an explicit one. Much of the hubbub, as with the book, is surely over the question of just how gratuitous this film is. The answer is, really, not at all. Though Doran is gleefully exploited for his physique (except, y’know, that bit) and Johnson appears to have no-qualms about nudity, the sex scenes that are causing such anticipatory stir are more M&S than S&M. This is a heavily focus-grouped, mass-media-ready advertising double-page-spread of ‘kinky’; one in which lashes are delivered lightly and in slow-motion, if at all. It feels like an all-too-clean photo-shopped facsimile of sex. Not the real thing. And really it’s no surprise. This is a huge release for Universal. Following the surprise success of the books, what was once taboo is now just another commodity to fashion as expensive-yet-attainable. Christian Grey and his red room feel like the delivery device for adventurous sexual appetites as a life choice. Sponsored, presumably, by Apple (they do very well here).
And then… it’s over, rather anti-climatically. Given what happens, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if this was how it ended. But you’d do well to remind yourself this is the first part of a trilogy. Whether you’ll leave wanting more, however, is quite another question.
It’s well documented that Fifty Shades originated as Twilight fan fiction or slash fiction, got tweaked, became a sensation. What’s depressing about the entire fiasco is that, of all of the erotic fiction out there (and the internet sags with it if you prod the right/wrong links), there’s a strong suggestion that this isn’t nearly a fine example. The same way that, ultimately, this movie version isn’t nearly a fine example of erotic cinema. The astronomical success on E.L. James’ work seems frustratingly arbitrary; a piece of extraordinary dumb luck. Like a throwback to the sensationalist soft-focused glut of ‘erotic’ thrillers that appeared in the late 80’s/early 90’s in the wake of 9 1/2 Weeks, it presents the Hollywood coffee-table version of its subject matter, anemic, and, at its worst, just plain dull.
And still, despite the apparent softening of the material, the imbalance between it’s characters smarts like a whip crack. BDSM, healthy BDSM, is prideful of mutual respect and care, something highlighted with poignancy in Steven Shainberg’s far-superior (though altogether different) Secretary from 2002, which even features its own Mr Grey. The character’s actually called that. Go rent or buy that for a third of the ticket price of this. It should be easy to find, and you’ll get far more from it. Fifty Shades Of Grey: not a disaster, just simply not that good. Sorry if that’s not sexy enough for ya.