One of the most widely read books of the last 25 years finally makes its way to the big screen. Fifty Shades of Grey, the hush-hush bestseller that introduced a large audience to BDSM, doesn’t easily translate into stunning cinema.
As a movie, it’s an Ambien pill. Unable to snap out of its thick fog and capture the essence of submission, or even love, Fifty Shades of Grey mixes melodrama and vacant performances with all the greatest hits found in author E.L. James’ original.
Photo courtesy of Focus Features
Jamie Dornan goes full-robot with Melanie Griffith’s daughter. Who knew bondage could be this dull?
Sent on a mission by her sick roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford), college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is confronted with the sheer authority of business magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) as she stumbles through an interview.
Dazzled by his good looks and intense focus, Anastasia is knocked flat by his presence, while Christian is equally obsessed, recognizing a special quality about her mousy ways.
Christian introduces his lady to his first love: dominance and submission. Offering her a contract that keeps him in control at all times, Christian hopes to find a willing partner to help exorcise his demons, while Anastasia hesitates to commit in full, even as she can’t escape the thrill of his domineering ways.
Working to build a relationship, the pair challenges each other with honesty and family, while Christian deals with his loss of discipline, falling for Anastasia as she slowly pulls away.
It’s Mission: Impossible for screenwriter Kelly Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson, tasked with making this beast of a book palatable for a mass audience and secure an R rating for multiplex distribution.
Left with few creative options, they turn James’ book into muzak, dialing down the kink to focus on the passion between Christian and Anastasia, who can’t even touch each other without orgasming.
The bulk of the movie traces Anastasia’s reluctance to sign a document that basically hands imaginary control to Christian, with her reward being the billionaire himself, who tingles at the idea of being worshiped by his lip-biting love.
And who wouldn’t want to be tied up by Christian? He’s handsome, fit, gifts Anastasia a laptop to help her research BDSM, and a sports car for her transportation needs. He takes her on helicopter and glider trips, and he knows how to French braid hair. He’s even open to striking the anal fisting clause in their contract. What a catch!
To keep the character approachable, Christian isn’t depicted as a thrill-seeker with a healthy interest in kinky play. He’s a damaged puppy dog, working through his traumatic childhood one spanking at a time, turning Anastasia into a therapy doll of sorts.
Their connection is soulful—conveniently so—but their habits are physical. Fifty Shades of Grey provides a few scenes of bondage and beatings, which Taylor-Johnson films like an instructional video, keeping Johnson naked and Dornan shirtless (only including a little “neck” to rile up moviegoers).
The sequences in Christian’s sex tool-filled “Red Room” carry on for roughly 100 years, possibly doing a great disservice to the alternative lifestyle. Who knew bondage could be so dull?
Any hope for understanding the magnetic pull between Christian and Anastasia is gagged and bound. Dornan goes full-robot, mistaking blankness for concentration, creating a character with no appealing qualities besides his physical appearance. (The Irish actor also misfires with his chewy American accent.)
Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith, channels her mother circa 1981. Anastasia is a daffy young virgin who giggles during the Red Room initiation, making it difficult to understand why Christian spends such an enormous amount of time and money on her.
For fans of endings, this movie passes on the opportunity, concluding with an abrupt cliffhanger and the grand assumption that there will be another film.
There are two more books in James’ saga of love and gray ties. While a follow-up is likely, it’s a bit presumptuous, and if it’s anything like the first installment, it’s about as welcome as a splintered paddle.