See also: Prevenge review.
It’s a symptom of our culture that films like the Fifty Shades franchise are greeted with so much scorn and pretentious scoffing. These movies are widely regarded as mindless fluff designed primarily to titillate, and for some reason people take great pleasure in watching them torn down. But the undeniable truth is that they’re popular, and the conversation around this sequel has remained steady when you could easily imagine a reality where the franchise was a momentary craze that faded into obscurity as soon as the first film left cinemas.
Here we are two years later, this time with director James Foley at the helm, and it’s safe to say that many a Valentine’s day will feature a viewing of Fifty Shades Darker.
The story picks up with Ana (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan) on the outs after the first film’s cliffhanger, and soon he is begging her to ‘renegotiate terms’ and re-enter into the relationship. Ana has a new job and as an editor’s assistant, and much of the film sees her trying to hold onto a life of her own even as Christian continuously fights the urge to take ownership of his ‘girlfriend’.
Ana’s boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) is set up as our potential love rival, and it’s clear here that the book’s author, E L James, was definitely not a member of Team Jacob. There is no triangle as the trailers may have suggested, but instead an incessant dance between our lovers over whether he’s ready to be in a ‘vanilla’ relationship with a woman with as much self-worth as Ana apparently possesses.
As we follow the most interesting half of this romance, figures from Christian’s past also keep popping up. There’s Elena, the woman who ‘taught him how to f[umble with – Ed] things’ (the film’s words, not mine), and Leila, a previous sub of his who develops an unhealthy obsession with Ana.
This is a better film than the first, but only marginally. It looks as lovely as ever, with plenty of beautiful people in stunning locales wearing the fanciest formalwear, and that goes a long way to ensuring this is a watchable movie even if you don’t care about the plot. Then there’s the music. For many, like the Twilight films before it, Fifty Shades is just an amazing soundtrack with a film attached, and that remains the case.
Speaking of the soundtrack, it helps the majority of the sex scenes to be much more playful this time around, also making the film less uncomfortable for those with objections to its central dynamic. Anastasia is consistently asked what it is she wants, and when Christian exhibits classic stalker behaviour like buying out the place she works or handing her cheques for thousands of dollars, we at least hear her tell him he’s being terrible. Which he is, and he’s also rude to waiters.
But the plot still just isn’t there, with attempts at injecting conflict getting increasingly laughable as we go along. Like the source material it piles on the twists when a simpler arc for the pair would have made for a much more satisfying watch. It feels more complete than its predecessor, at least, with just one quick hint at what we might expect from the third installment (plus a mid-credits scene fans will want to stay for).
Dornan still doesn’t match his scene partner in either charisma or commitment to the material – a shame since Darker is the film in which we’re supposed to sympathise with Christian – and Johnson again elevates the script above its most mediocre elements. This is arguably the most interesting (yet least sexy) part of the story, as we learn more about why Christian is the way he is, which at least gives both a lot more to work with.
If you squint, this is still a trilogy about female sexual awakening and empowerment, but it’s a stretch. If Anastasia came to me and asked whether she should ignore the many, many red flags coming from her increasingly volatile boyfriend, I’d wrap her in my arms and tell her to run for the hills, but in this skewed version of reality we believe that Christian really can change his ways with the right woman in his life.
Mostly, Fifty Shades Darker is more of the same, but with just a touch more charm. It’s silly wish-fulfillment for audience members who’d quite like their lives to be this fabulous and dramatic, and it’s precisely that heightened frivolity that makes these films successful. This won’t convert anyone, but its commitment to serving fans exactly what they want is admirable in its own way.
Also in UK cinemas today is the far better Prevenge. Here’s the trailer for that…