WRITTEN REVIEW – Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
Due to the subject matter of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘, there will be harsh language and dialogue of a sexual nature in this review. Reader discretion is advised.
Fifty Shades of Grey
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Written by: Kelly Marcel
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Luke Grimes & Rita Ora
Music: Danny Elfman
Release Date: February 13th 2015
In 2011, Twilight fan-fiction writer E.L. James released “Fifty Shades of Grey” after re-tooling her fan-fiction and ramping up the sexual content. The phenomenon of the book is the perfect summation of lightning in a bottle. With the rise of e-readers, the increasing accessibility of e-books online as well as its (at the time) unique portrayal of romance in mainstream novels, Universal Pictures are now hoping to recapture that success on the big-screen.
This is an uphill struggle because the book is considered a joke by most who read it. Its terribly written, its origins as Twilight fan-fiction are apparent from the characters to the story-structure and it’s clear that E.L. James has no idea what BDSM actually is. However, making a good film out of something like this is not impossible. Movies like ‘The Godfather‘, ‘Gone With The Wind‘ and even last month’s ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service‘ are considered substantial improvements over their dubious source material. However, the end result is an ugly, abhorrent movie that chews up BDSM, spits it out, packages it, processes it and then sells it to the masses under the guise of “erotica”.
Buckle up, folks. This isn’t going to be a fun review. And for that, I profusely apologise.
Anastasia Steele (Johnson) is an English Literature University Student who has to fill in for her sick room-mate and interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey (Dornan). The two are immediately attracted to each other and after a few chance encounters decide to hook up, but Christian doesn’t “do romance”. Christian is into BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism) which shocks the completely virginal Anastasia, but she finds herself hopelessly in love with the disturbed, immensely wealthy Christian.
That’s literally the whole plot of the movie, by the way. There’s no sub-plots, there’s no conspiracy or any twists and turns. The whole plot of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ is “This guy’s into dark stuff. Can she get into that?”. Now, fair enough, the source material is basically 500 pages of pornography so it can get away with a simplistic narrative which can be bolstered by inner monologues (not an endorsement for the book, by the way) but for a 125 minute movie, the relationship needs to be strong enough or compelling enough to work.
It’s just a shame that Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan have shockingly little chemistry together. The two simply don’t sizzle together on screen during the dialogue or the bafflingly infrequent and tepid sex sequences (more on that later, because I’m a tease I guess). You can tell that Anastasia Steele is based off Bella Swan in that she’s a feeble, insufferably weak female character with very little agency speaking nails-on-a-chalkboard bad dialogue. She plays the part SO demure, so feeble and so virginal that her behaviour later on in the movie comes right out of nowhere as opposed to it being a part of her all along that’s wanting to break free.
She frequently bites her lip in the movie but not once does it feel genuine. You can practically see the words “CUT TO. ANASTASIA BITES HER LIP” behind the screen in Size 14 Courier New Font from the screenplay as opposed to it being a reaction from the character in that moment.
But even if she was a sexual goddess, it’s practically impossible that she’d want to partake in that sex with Christian Grey. Jamie Dornan was initially successful as an underwear model before gaining critical praise for his intense performance in the TV show ‘The Fall‘. Dornan brings that level of intensity to Christian Grey, but that backfires severely as his character in ‘The Fall‘ is a psychotic serial killer.
Christian Grey is quite possible the most unlikeable lead in not just a romance movie but in ANY movie period for quite a substantial amount of time. To put it bluntly, Christian Grey is a dick.
While his line delivery and intense stare makes Dornan’s interpretation of Grey incredibly questionable, his general behaviour in the script had this character doomed from the beginning. At first his behaviour is actually pretty laughable. He continually flirts with Anastasia and leads her on before turning around and saying “You shouldn’t see me anymore”, before IMMEDIATELY coming back to her. I’m sure this is meant to portray a character who is torn between what he knows is wrong and his darker temptations but the way Jamie Dornan plays it with his odd-looking smouldering and the impeccable frequency in which it happens makes Christian Grey seems like a caricature of Joey Tribbiani’s “sensitive boyfriend” routine from ‘Friends‘.
Yes, a CARICATURE of Joey.
But the laughable behaviour quickly becomes no laughing matter as after their first meeting Christian finds out where she works and tracks her down, manages to track her phone without her permission so he can confront her in the street and this is BEFORE the two have even started a relationship.
One fundamental flaw with the portrayal of Christian in the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ movie is that he’s supposed to be a man with two sides. The confident, business man who also has a dark secret. But because the audience never actually see him conduct any business (seriously, what does he DO at work!?) the only frame of reference we have for him is his darker side.
And it’s not sexy. It’s deeply disturbing.
‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ is, without hyperbole and without exaggeration, a story about how romantic domestic abuse is.
The stuff I mentioned earlier with Christian’s stalking is just the tip of the iceberg. Once Christian opens up to Anastasia about his secret by showing her his “playroom” he makes her sign a non-disclosure agreement saying she can never talk about their relationship to others and then has her look over a contract of their sexual terms and conditions which basically describes what the two can and cannot do to each other.
Incidentally, Anastasia has to ask Christian Grey what a “butt-plug” is. Anastasia, you’re an English Literature student. Use some common sense.
Christian Grey says that Anastasia can “walk away at any time” and that he’ll “understand” if she doesn’t want to go through with it. That seems reasonable enough…until she tells him that she doesn’t want to sign it.
Christian then proceeds to break into Anastasia’s apartment, appear at her bedroom door while she’s alone and then has sex with her in a bid to get her to reconsider the contract.
Let me repeat that.
HE BREAKS INTO ANASTASIA’S APARTMENT. What in the flying fuck happened to “I’ll understand”!?
Christian plays with Anastasia’s emotions by tenderly kissing her and then pushing her away. He takes her virginity and then immediately leaves her in the bed alone to play his piano sombrely (boo hoo), refuses to share a bed with her, sells her old, antique car so she can drive a new sports car WITHOUT ASKING HER PERMISSION and because of the non-disclosure agreement, Anastasia cannot talk to her family and friends about it otherwise Christian will terminate the relationship. Incidentally, because Christian and Anastasia’s interactions with each other in the movie are based ENTIRELY on the terms of their relationship and their sex life as opposed to what appeals to them both as human beings, we see ZERO redeeming qualities from Christian or any reason as to why Anastasia would want to pursue this relationship.
There’s a scene where Anastasia talks to her mother on the phone and with her eyes welling up, sniffling, trying to hold back the tears, she says;
“He’s not always bad.”
Remove the sexual lingo from the movie (I’ve deliberately not mentioned it yet to demonstrate this) and this is the story of a woman in love with a domestic abuser. No, he doesn’t punch her or physically hurt her in the above scenarios. But abuse doesn’t have to be in the form of physical contact. That scene of her on the phone to her mother incredibly unhappy, is a textbook example of a moment of denial that comes from someone in a dangerous relationship that they can’t escape from. I’m not trying to belittle actual domestic abuse. It’s a terrible thing, it really is. But the way that scene is filmed and the way Dakota plays it makes it obvious that she is not happy and that she doesn’t enjoy the sex Christian gives her.
Okay, let’s address the sex.
First of all, it’s tepid and incredibly restrained (pun not intended). For a movie based off a book with in-depth passages describing how incredible the sex she has is, you hardly see any of it. There’s about 4 or 5 minutes of sexual content in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ (maximum) and very little is actually revealed. Aside from arse-cheeks, nothing is shown below the belt. The movie is rated 18 in the UK, but if it wasn’t for the sexual language I could honestly see this being a 15. Easy.
When I first heard that ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ was going to get an R-rating in America indicating that it would bare very little resemblance to the sexual content in the book, I joked to myself that maybe they’ll cut to shots of crashing waves or rockets launching or trains going through tunnels.
Amazingly, that actually happens in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘. After 30 seconds of non-revealing, softcore porn while Christian is taking Anastasia’s virginity, the camera pans up to a nearby picture hanging on a wall of ocean waves.
I swear I’m not making that up.
But okay, Anastasia enjoys the conventional, romantic sex. That’s fine even though there’s so little of it and its filmed so oddly tastefully that it makes you wonder why they even bothered. It’s when the “BDSM” gets involved that ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ becomes a genuinely depressing movie-going experience.
I put “BDSM” in quotation marks because ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ does not accurately portray BDSM. In fact, the portrayal it gets in this movie is not only irresponsible on an artistic level but its also potentially dangerous for what is meant to be a titillating movie for couples to enjoy on Valentine’s weekend. When Christian first takes Anastasia to his “playroom” which has a large bed in the centre along with shelves stocked with whips, butt-plugs, handcuffs, rope, elaborate mechanisms etc. Anastasia asks why he would want to do stuff like this. Christian responds “For my pleasure”. Anastasia then asks “What about me?”.
Christian then says the words that will damn the movie.
“To please me.”
That is NOT BDSM.
BDSM is about pleasure for BOTH consensual parties involved. But in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ it’s for Christian’s pleasure and his alone. On the surface that might not seem so bad because what does that matter as long as Anastasia enjoys it as well? But she doesn’t.
Anastasia does not enjoy what Christian puts her through. The first sexual scene in the playroom has Anastasia tied up as Christian uses his tools to “please”
her himself and only himself. It’s meant to be one of the big scenes of the movie with the most titillation, the scene that’s meant to rile up audience members in the throngs of passion.
But Anastasia isn’t enjoying it.
When it cuts to Dakota Johnson, tied up and being “pleased” by Christian, there’s a look of fear on her face. Not a look of passion. Not a look of anticipation or even a look of playful fearfulness. It’s honest to god fear.
All the while, Beyonce’s cover of “Crazy Love” plays, saying to the audience “No, this is REALLY erotic! I promise! It’s really really sexy! You should see this on Valentine’s weekend and get lucky with your partner after watching this woman
get abused have a great time!”.
Whether it was written like that, or Dakota Johnson interpreted it like that in her performance or whether she was directed to act like that…there has either been a MASSIVE mis-communication here or this is genuinely what the filmmakers wanted to portray.
I desperately want to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and say the former; that this is just incompetent filmmaking and that it’s just ignorance. But due to what happens near the end of the movie that is clearly not the case. In one of the final scenes, Christian opens up to Anastasia and says that he enjoys hurting her. Not for pleasure. He just enjoys hurting her. He WANTS to hurt her. Not please her. Hurt.
The movie then proceeds to show Christian flogging Anastasia, making her count the hits, all the while, her face is smothered and pressed against a hard, wooden table, tears streaming down her face. I was watching pure, unbridled domestic abuse take place in a movie trying to titillate its audience members. It was one of the most unpleasant experiences in my 20+ years of movie-going.
The movie COULD have attempted to try and just go for the smut and just depict the sex and leave it at that, or it could have delved deep into Christian’s psyche and show that this is unhealthy and almost play like a horror movie in which Anastasia has to escape from this warped version of what no-longer resembles BDSM, but the movie doesn’t do that. It straight-facedly says “THIS is BDSM. It’s erotic. Christian loves it. Anastasia loves Christian because…reasons. So she’ll tolerate it. That’s sexy!”.
It’s an unhealthy relationship. Let’s not go over the fact that he gets furious at Anastasia for daring to go and visit her parents for a day without informing him otherwise. Once he learns of this, he then proceeds to forcibly carry her over his shoulder to take her some place quiet, then grabs her by the shoulders and threateningly shouts “YOU ARE MINE. ALL MINE. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
It’s worth nothing that at this point Anastasia has not signed the contract consenting to being “his”.
One of the worst parts of all, is that this isn’t like the 2002 movie ‘Secretary‘ (a much sexier and accurate depiction of BDSM in which the male lead is called Edward Grey, what a coincidence…) in which this is a power-play between the two. There is ONE sequence where Anastasia turns the tables on Christian and it’s the only scene that gets anywhere close to decent in the movie where she discusses the terms of the contract in the form of a formal business meeting. This would have been a legitimately great way to shift the dynamic in this “relationship”, but it has no bearing on the rest of the movie. At all. It’s never brought up again and Anastasia never goes back to that state-of-mind. It’s completely superfluous.
Because Christian doesn’t “do romance” or do normal things like go to movies or go out for dinner, he offers during the “business meeting” scene to go out and do something like that with her once a week. That WOULD show a level of maturity but Jamie Dornan’s performance makes it come across like someone going “Okay then, FINE. Let’s just fuck already.” as opposed to someone who genuinely wants to make Anastasia happy. It also doesn’t help that they NEVER end up going on this date.
Christian needs to change Anastasia by forcing her into “BDSM” (like I said, he breaks into her apartment when she considers not going through with it), he dictates what she can wear, where she can go, who she can talk to, what she can drink. All the while, he makes ZERO changes to himself. Aside from promising not to use tape during sex or subject her to “anal and vaginal fisting”, he doesn’t make any compromises for her.
And I know legions of defenders are going to say “But Christian had a traumatic upbringing!”, but just because you had people treat you horribly when you were growing up does NOT give you the right to treat others the same way. I also know that those same defenders will say “But it’s not FOR you! It’s for older women!”. First of all, look at this website. Movies are FOR me. I even mentioned that I really liked ‘Secretary‘ earlier. And secondly, are you saying that older women aren’t allowed good movies? What did women do to deserve such treatment?
‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ not only fails to grasp what BDSM is, it not only fails at basic character development and not only does it fail at representing romance but it fails to understand relationships on a fundamental level.
Relationships are effort. Relationships are compromise. They’re not about control. They’re not about emotional manipulation. But ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ tries to present that interpretation in the guise of a sexy romance movie. It’s genuinely sickening.
As for the rest of the movie, the supporting cast are bland, the pace is sluggish, it’s at least 40 minutes too long, it’s poorly lit with flat direction and shot composition and Danny Elfman’s music which tries to sell Christian and Anastasia’s partnership as the most romantic thing ever clashes with the harsh, grim, disturbing reality of what’s actually transpiring on screen. The movie has a production budget of $40M but it looks like it could have easily been made on a budget of $15M, easily. Seriously, how did this movie happen? Sam Taylor-Johnson proved she has great potential when she made her debut with the brilliant ‘Nowhere Boy‘ and screenwriter Kelly Marcel wrote the flawed, but admirable ‘Saving Mr. Banks‘. This is the type of movie that could kill careers and since according to behind-the-scenes reports saying that E.L. James hi-jacked the production with changes and superseded the director and writer in the creative decisions, that just seems absurdly unfair to two individuals who could have promising careers.
‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ is one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had watching a movie. I expected stupid, cheesy schlock for me to laugh at and while the movie had moments of laughable dialogue, that veneer quickly faded away to reveal a morbid and twisted core. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ is legitimate, traumatising and disturbing domestic abuse masquerading as romance and that’s not even including its dangerous, inaccurate interpretation of BDSM which is all about pain for the submissive. Even if it didn’t have those elements, the movie would be boring as sin. The leads have no chemistry, the plot itself is painfully dull, its directed with the zero enthusiasm and the sex would barely cause controversy on pre-watershed television with only 5 minutes of screentime in this 125 minute production.
I can’t even recommend it on a “so bad it’s good” level because, like I said, it was a depressing movie to be subjected to. The movie closes on what could have been a legitimately brave ending…if it wasn’t for the promise of sequels in which Anastasia will go through this dangerous cycle again. Because remove the sex-talk, remove the “BDSM” and remove the sex-contract (which Anastasia never signs, by the way) and this is domestic abuse being portrayed on-screen for the enjoyment of mainstream audiences.
There are no shades of grey here. It’s startlingly clear. This is abuse. This is reprehensible. This is irresponsible and dangerous filmmaking.
This is Fifty Shades of Fucked Up.
I give ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ zero stars out of 5.
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Posted: 14th Feb 15