Film Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (dir by Sam Taylor-Johnson)


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If there’s anything that’s obvious from looking over some of the reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s that only after you’ve read the book can you properly appreciate the film.

If you haven’t read the book, you’ll probably watch the film and dismiss it as being a draggy film that has some truly terrible dialogue and which features two actors who look good naked but who have absolutely no chemistry.  You might appreciate that fact that Dakota Jonson, at the very least, appears to be trying to give a good performance.  You might even acknowledge that director Sam Taylor-Johnson manages to capture a few pretty images.  You might even be happy that she resisted the temptation to cast her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (a.k.a., the least interesting bankable actor working today), in the role of Christian Grey.  But, even with all of that, you’ll probably still probably watch the film and, even with its artfully composed and shot sex scenes, think to yourself, “That was two hours of my life that I’ll never get back.”

However, if you have read the book, then you will be capable of watching the film and understanding that, as flawed as it may be, 50 Shades of Grey probably should have been a thousand times worse.  It may seem weird to praise Sam Taylor-Johnson for managing to create a below average film but, considering her source material, below average is probably the best that could be hoped for.

Both the film and the book tell the same basic story.  Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a 21 year-old English lit major.  We know that she’s intelligent because she knows the difference between Thomas Hardy the writer and Tom Hardy the actor.  We know that she’s innocent because, the first time that she interviews Christian Grey, she wears a sweater.

As for Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), he’s a 28 year-old multibillionaire.  We are constantly assured that he’s the most interesting man in the world, despite the fact that he actually seems to be rather dull.  He likes Ana.  She likes him.  But Christian doesn’t do the relationship thing.  Instead, he explains, “I fuck.  Hard.”  (As opposed to doing so limp…)  He’s not interested in having a “vanilla” relationship with Ana.  Instead, he wants her to sign a contract in which she’ll agree to be his submissive.

That’s right — Christian claims to be into BDSM.  And, in order to prove that point, he has a red dungeon that’s full of stuff that he apparently picked up at a BDSM yard sale.  The dungeon’s red, of course.  In both the book and the film, a good deal of time is spent attempting to explain BDSM and, in both cases, you’re left with the feeling that Christian got most of his knowledge from reading Wikipedia.  In many ways, Christian comes across like someone who has never had a drink pretending to be drunk.  He tries really hard but … no.

Anyway, a lot of the film comes down to Christian trying to get Ana to sign a contract.  Ana agrees to give up her freedom.  When she asks what she gets in return, Christian replies, “Me.”  Which, if Christian was being played by Ryan Gosling or Michael Fassbender, might be an incentive.  But instead, he’s being played by Jamie Dornan who, quite frankly, looks embarrassed to be there.

Those who have read the book will be pleased to discover that Christian’s immortal line of “I’m fifty shades of fucked up!” has been included in the film.  Dornan delivers it like an actor who has given up and who can blame him?  To her credit, Dakota Johnson manages to keep a straight face.

Here’s the main problem.  Christian Grey is a stalker asshole.  He’s an obsessive control freak who is basically using the BDSM lifestyle as a way to cover up the fact that he’s a sociopath.  Though that was not author E.L. James’s intention when she wrote the book, that’s who Christian Grey ultimately turns out to be.  And that’s the way that Jamie Dornan plays the character.  It’s not that Dornan is a bad actor.  Just watch him in The Fall and you’ll see that Dornan is capable of giving a very good performance.  Instead, you just get the feeling that he looked at the 50 Shades script, saw that Christian was an impossible character to play sympathetically, and decided to give the most literal performance possible.  When you were reading the book, you could always imagine some redeeming features for Christian.  But, when you watch the movie, you’re forced to accept this very literal interpretation of the character and it quickly becomes apparent that the only reason why anyone would possible love Christian is because he’s rich.

Meanwhile, in the role of Ana, Dakota Johnson actually does a pretty good job.  Fortunately, the film jettisons Ana’s narration and we don’t have to hear any details about what her inner goddess is doing while being ordered around by Christian.  As a result, Johnson’s interpretation of Ana is far different from how the character was portrayed in the book.  Whereas the book’s Ana seems to be desperate to be loved by Christian, Johnson’s Ana often seems to be struggling to keep a straight face.  Whereas the book’s Ana took the whole contract thing very seriously, Johnson’s Ana always seems to be on the verge of rolling her eyes.  It gives the film an interesting subtext in that you never quite believe that Johnson’s Ana could be as intrigued by Christian Grey as both the book and the film insist that she is. Instead, she mostly seems to put up with him and his kinks because he buys her expensive gifts.

And, since Christian is such a jerk, you really don’t mind the possibility that Ana’s main motivation might be materialistic.

(Another great thing about Dakota Johnson is that she seems to be sincerely embarrassed whenever she has to tell anyone that her name is “Anastasia Steele.”)

Finally, a word about Sam Taylor-Johnson.  On the basis of Nowhere Boy, she’s a talented director and, as far as 50 Shades of Grey goes, I think she does the best that she could possibly do.  At the very least, she seems to realize that the film is a bit ludicrous and she wisely plays some of the book’s worst moments for subversive laughter.  Considering that 50 Shades of Grey is one of the worst books ever written (and, by that, I mean that the book’s prose is so clunky and overdone that it’s damn near unreadable), Sam Taylor-Johnson probably does deserve some credit for making a movie that’s only below average as opposed to disastrous.  At the very least, I hope that 50 Shades of Grey will not damage her career in the way that Twilight damaged the equally talented Catherine Hardwicke’s.

I forced my boyfriend to see it with my on Valentine’s and there were a lot of couples in the theater.  But, for all the talk of how 50 Shades of Grey launched a thousand fantasies, it’s not a particularly erotic film.  The sex scenes are well shot but, since Jamie and Dakota have no chemistry, they also feel very clinical and detached.  (Add to that, for a film that’s being identified as being a chick flick, the camera spent a lot more time lingering on Dakota’s naked body than on Jamie’s.)  All the sex that followed couples viewing 50 Shades on Saturday night had more to do with the romance of Valentine’s Day and the glory of being in love than with the film itself.

(That, of course, is one of the huge differences between 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike.)

50 Shades of Grey apparently made a lot of money this weekend and, if you’re reading this review, chances are that you’ve already seen the film.  So, I’ll just conclude by saying that the film is not as bad as most people were expecting.  It’s just not particularly any good either.  I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Dakota and Sam Taylor-Johnson do in the future but Christian Grey can just stay in his red room for all I care.

(And now that you’ve read the review, why not have some real fun and check out the Fifty Shades of Grey text generator!?  Click on refresh a few times and you’ll have an erotic best seller of your own, ready to be published and to make you rich!)

27 responses to “Film Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (dir by Sam Taylor-Johnson)

  1. I haven’t read the book but I went into this with an open mind. I ended up horrified by the character of Christian who (I feel) commits some terrible acts of domestic abuse. His impatience with Ana is uncomfortable to watch. Johnson’s performance is pretty good and teases this dark side out, but the film’s focus on titillation undermines any concerted attempt to stab at these darker themes. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The sad thing is that these books (and, it appears, the movie) give the average viewer an atrociously skewed perspective on healthy and proper communication and activity within BDSM relationships. Hell, even the Exit to Eden movie, awful as it was, didn’t treat that world so idiotically. (Here is where I admit that I haven’t read the books, but I’ve checked out a lot of excerpts of the first one, and your take on it is dead-on.)

    I know the book and movie shouldn’t necessarily be expected represent healthy kinky relationships for everyone, but as far-and-away the most popular “crossover” representation, I can only imagine what the typically vanilla reader/viewer is taking from them (and it isn’t good).

    One of my gigs is reviewing self-published books, and the vast majority are just awful, but the prose in FSOG is no better. It makes Stephenie Meyer look like Faulkner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The thing that amazed me about Christian’s “dungeon” was how cheap it all looked. For a multi-billionaire who claims that BDSM is his life, Christian apparently has absolutely awful taste.

      To be honest, the recent Asylum version of 50 Shades, Bound, was actually a lot more intelligent when it came to dealing with BDSM.

      Like

      • I’ve been meaning to check that out. Still love Charisma Carpenter from her Buffy/Angel days, and she seems to be holding up well. I don’t expect it to be as sexy as the Gina Gershon/Jennifer Tilly “Bound,” but few things are. 🙂

        Like

  3. With the “Success” of 50 Shades I’m wondering when some studio will suddenly get on the bandwagon and produce Anne Rice’s BDSM take on the Sleeping Beauty story she wrote under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure.

    Like

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