Director: James Foley
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Kim Basinger
What will historians make of the Fifty Shades craze if we survive the coming apocalypse of tongue lolling, phone scrolling stupidity? Will it be seen as a signpost, like Trump, of our ongoing self-destructive pull against societal advancement? A knee jerking against the tide of progression before we gluttonously obliterated ourselves? Perhaps, as it is already, it’ll simply be regarded with embarrassment. An awkward cough when it hampers unexpectedly into conversation.
That embarrassment comes not at the supposedly salacious content, but due to the retrograde politics of the franchise, which portrays an unhealthy and abusive relationship, excusing these factors through the vanities of wealth and prettiness. But you’ve heard this all before by now, I’m sure. Not least here, when I took it upon myself to investigate the first film in the series. Doggedly, I’m back to report on the further escapades of Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan). The news isn’t any better.
Fifty Shades Of Grey ended on a sharp and spirited exclamation point as Anastasia refused Christian and walked out the door (hooray!). The punchiness of this moment was a minor compensation for the dull dross that preceded it, and if things had just stopped there we’d have been fine, more or less. But it made money, so here we go again. The creative team behind the camera have been replaced (alarm bell!). Notably, screenwriting duties have been picked up by author E L James’ own husband Niall Leonard (while Googling him the service advised me that other users have been moved to ask “Why was Fifty Shades Of Grey written?”, hilariously). So, anyway, that’s independent quality control out of the window. Directing duties have been passed to James Foley who as of late has been working more and more in television.
That sensibility is telling as Darker strolls contentedly out of the gate and never once attempts to gain momentum, happy instead to dawdle interminably for two solid hours as though we’re just making time in the middle of a boxset binge. Anastasia’s separation from Grey (who has gone full Desi from Gone Girl) is short-lived and futile, as he oppressively cups her life and choices with his far-reaching wealth. It’s creepy and upsetting and that’s only just the beginning of it. Anastasia has a new(?) boss at the publishing firm named Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), who is essentially Grey all over again, albeit with less money and a 90’s hairstyle…
…This is an important point, actually, given Hyde’s vile, presumptive, entitled behaviour going forward. He and Grey are really no different, except for the manner in which the audience is asked to accept them. Their approach to Anastasia is basically the same…
Before long, Grey’s back to his old tricks; making unreasonable demands of Anastasia (although there’s no ridiculous contract mcguffin this time, thankfully), flouncing when he doesn’t get his way, making invasive decisions that she meekly advises him aren’t cool… until she swoons at his looks or his penthouse suite and all is forgiven. Over. And over. Again.
But it’s sold, yet again, as something that should be desired. By midway through the film she’s tiptoeing around him, trying not to upset him with basic details of her life. The deeply troubling side of this is swept under the carpet in favour of the glossy dispersal of decidedly flaccid sex scenes, each less relevant to the developing story arc (such as it is) than the last. Instead they come to feel like work; an unfortunate and boring necessity shoehorned in to placate the material’s reputation. More than anything they seem like pit stops to remind the viewer that the exceptionally dreary soundtrack album is Out Now, presumably for people who found the Leona Lewis song on the end of Avatar sexy (you kinky rotters, you).
Grey’s softly painted sexual sadism is explained away in the shoddiest manner possible. Worst of all, he acknowledges the insufficient excuses for his psychological framework – and they are excuses – but does nothing to change or improve himself. He just doubles-down on it. And everyone worships him for it. Someone. Literally. Gets. On. Their. Knees. Before. Him.
And it’s not challenged. If anything, by the end of this wispy second installment, it’s been normalised. Darker spends it’s time establishing a pattern of unhealthy behaviour until it’s perceived by all as fine. That’s the victory here. In a very real sense this is a movie excusing the “grab ’em by the pussy” billionaire’s mentality. Isn’t he lovely!
So it’s an open airlock sucking valuable oxygen out of society. So be it. Foley shoots it with just barely the competency you’d expect from this kind of studio cash cow, but there’s no avoiding the knocked-over bin lorry that is the screenplay. The only arena in which this film beats it’s predecessor is in unintentionally naff dialogue. Hell, even this couple’s text messaging is appalling (“Laters Baby”). This in itself provides some slim sliver of perverse joy, as Fifty Shades seeks to actively capsize itself. But still, the outright awful message underpinning everything steals the thunder from any so-bad-it’s-good hopers out there; it’s simply not enough to make this worth even an ironic viewing.
When I saw this film in a public screening there was a projector malfunction in the third act which meant a shard of strange light sliced open the middle of the action for around ten minutes. Hand on heart, this was the most entertaining thing that happened. And if you’re still considering this as a viable option, let me remind you that the following films are also still presently playing in UK cinemas up and down the country and no doubt somewhere near you: Jackie, Manchester By The Sea, Toni Erdmann, Loving, John Wick Chapter Two, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, The LEGO Batman Movie. Hell, even La La Land and Lion are still around. Oh, and something called Moonlight has just been released to universal critical praise. You may have heard of it (review of that one very soon hopefully, along with 20th Century Women and The Founder which are also out now).
My point is this. Watch something of actual value and put the fucking cucumber down. It’s for salads for shit’s sake.