In the second scene of Fifty Shades of Grey, the enigmatically smoldering Christian Grey forces Anastasia Steele to confess that her favorite author is Thomas Hardy. It’s an innocuous detail for a sequence ripe with more erotic imagery than a Calvin Klein commercial: from his firm grip on the desk to her unworldly innocence as a pencil with his surname drips out her mouth. The steamy exchange becomes so much that Ana will finally need a Seattle rain shower just to clear the fog.
Yet, my mind goes back to Hardy, an apparently E L James approved scribe that created Bathsheba Everdene, the complex heroine who also had an older man leering after her to physically dangerous ends. Would Bathsheba in a modern context likewise find the greatest romantic dilemma of her life to be the fine print around a weekend sex slave contract? But here we are.
The much anticipated (and in some circles dreaded) Fifty Shades of Grey is slinking into theaters this weekend, and audiences already know whether or not they’re smitten with this leather and lace Valentine’s Day present. I can tell you that it’s probably what you expect…but it’s also surprisingly earnest with its clean cut romancing. There are indeed whips, chains, and plenty of rope to go around the heaving bodies of a very game Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. Yet rather than the two getting lost in a hedonistic wonderland, the literary infamy has been tidied up for Hollywood (or at least MPAA) standards; in its heart, this Fifty Shades of Grey is actually quite black and white with the simplicity of boy meets girl, and girl meets boy’s quirk.
She’s doe-eyed, bookish, naïve and purely virginal; he’s dark, mysterious, obscenely wealthy, and considers sweet nothings to include “I don’t make love: I fuck.” Ergo, when Anastasia somehow gets to interview the strapping young billionaire Christian in his glistening tower, she doesn’t stand a chance. And to make sure you realize this, she trips when she first meets him and fumbles around asking why he doesn’t have a girlfriend.
Faster than you can say Red Room of Pain, Christian is deflowering her and all that is left to be discussed are the details of what she will and will not permit him to do with her body, as relayed via contract. He wants her to sign in ink, but don’t worry—he has other plans for the blood.
Admittedly, I do not know much about BDSM culture, but whether dominant or submissive, one should probably take issue with this narrative, which features a woman completely succumbing to a man who stalks her at her job and enters her apartment without warning after rejection. Whatever works for a couple in the privacy of their own bedroom is for them alone, but when that work needs to be accomplished by the female partner legally agreeing to call her lover “sir” at all times or else it is within his rights to “punish” her, then their gender politics might be in need of a revolution.
However, the bigger surprise for Fifty Shades of Grey as a movie is how other than in the carnal scenes, this romantic melodrama is played numbingly straight. And I don’t mean in the biblical sense.
At its core, Fifty Shades of Grey is a fairly turgid soap that functions mostly as a framework for its wanton set-pieces. However, by virtue of the limitations inherent in a wide release, those set-pieces must be restrained, and the effect is like if Michael Bay was refused the ability to blow stuff up. Instead, director Sam Taylor-Johnson is forced to frame the passion by zeroing in on the noticeable chemistry between her two appealing leads. As a result, Taylor-Johnson strangely finds her best success from creating situational comedy. Fifty Shades is well aware why the viewers are there, so the telegraphed double entendres, again mostly at Anastasia’s oblivious expense, act as their own sadistic form of teasing—one that yields better satisfaction than the attempt to rearrange E L James’ yarn into a great romance of star-crossed passions.
Much of the narrative’s original DNA (Fifty Shades of Grey was originally a Twilight fan fiction) is still graphed to a film that can’t shake the sense of listless downtime. Early in the film, Taylor-Johnson has some fun with the thrill of anticipation, such as when Christian convinces Ana to sell him his tape and crimson cord, which plays like Bambi’s mom working at a gun depot that Man frequents. Similarly, the director’s moody staging of a back-and-forth business dealing between the two would-be lovers about just what kind of clamps will be used is worth a devilish smile. Nonetheless, this is hardly the highest aim of romance, but it will have to do when such feelings remain exclusively skin deep.
Filling in for that skin are Johnson and Dornan, who both have an undeniable crackle. While Dornan playing a billionaire CEO seems dubious at best, he is plenty believable with a fistful of rope. Johnson also plays subservient and confused well enough; it’s only when the third act conflicts not occurring in the Red Room are raised that either really falters with characters as thin as Christian’s ties.
There is undoubtedly an audience for Fifty Shades of Grey that will make the film a blockbuster no matter what, which is no worse than the soulless CGI product shoveled to other demographics every summer. But therein lies the rub. It’s hard to find love at the bottom of a spreadsheet, no matter how appealing the figures it otherwise presents. And Fifty Shades is very much product, right down to its non-ending that begs for a sequel like every other franchise film these days. For such a lascivious subject matter, this film is painfully normal.
If one wishes to find a perverse BDSM love story, Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002) is infinitely kinkier, as well as a true quixotic romance with real performances. Fifty Shades is just naughty Valentine’s Day role-play that stays limp.