I don’t quite know where to begin with this one. Movies that result from cultural-phenomenon books present a bit of a quandary for a reviewer. One is expected to review a film as a solitary entity, standing alone and free of whatever faults the source material may have had. On the other hand, it’s unreasonable to expect a writer to express an issue with a part of such a movie without knowing that some reader somewhere will be shouting at the review “yeah, but in the book, blah, blah, blah, so of course, you don’t get it!!!” There’s no denying some story has existed before, and there are times when it must be acknowledged. So, let’s get started with some acknowledging...
I even wonder how much a synopsis of the film is necessary, as the book was such a cultural happening three years ago that any reader is most likely already familiar with at least the basic premise. We all know of the titillating aspects of the story, and how it opening on Valentine’s Day weekend is something of a sick joke on Universal’s part (is THIS the kind of tale you equate with your affection for whomever you hold dearest…?). Millions of women, and a few men, I suppose, have lost themselves in the modern fairy tale-type story of young college grad Anastasia Steele and her surprising and unexpected “romance” with the cold, intimidating, dominating billionaire Christian Grey. I’m sure there are quite a few babies out there that were born exactly nine months after their mothers finished the juicier parts of the first book. Given how I have no intention of reading it, or the other two, I’ll just take the incredible sales figures of the books as testament to the story’s quality. The movie is what we’re talking about today.
I hesitate to call Fifty Shades of Grey a flawed film, because I find it hard to point to any individual thing in the movie and think that fixing it would have resulted in a better product. Dakota Johnson conveys the naiveté of Anastasia believably, and while Jamie Dornan as the movie’s titular Grey character comes off as a bit of a cold fish, one could argue that might have been appropriate for the character. The dreary, rainy Seattle and other Washington State settings (locations all duplicated in the Hollywood-North that Vancouver, British Columbia has become) fit into the “gray” tone of the film, as with two hundred days of rain per year, I imagine there’s not much else for people up there to do besides stay indoors and beat on one another with whips and chains. I even found director Sam(antha) Taylor-Johnson’s choices of where to place the rare instance of brighter color pretty impressive, the occasional red or blue punctuating some particular emotion in a given scene. Even the “money” shots of the bondage/domination practices that everyone came to see are done as tastefully as they possibly could be, avoiding the NC-17 rating that would result if such a story were told in any realistic fashion.
The point where Fifty Shades of Grey fails can be placed before production even started - the story itself is a load of crap. Let’s face it - it’s an open secret that the source material for this tale began its life as Twilight fan-fiction, and even after being reworked by its author into an original work, it still appeals to the same crowd as drugstore romance novels once did. As such, when turned into something visual, its inadequacies are laid out for all to see. The poor-innocent-girl-meets-maddeningly-handsome-rich-gentleman story is as old as time, and there isn’t much variation on the theme here, with the possible exception of the addition of a ball-gag and dog collar or two… or three. Waking up in opulent hotel rooms, having drivers whisk you off in black limousines to meet Mr. Handsome, who will fly you away in his helicopter… all of the stereotypical Cinderella-story tropes are here, and all details period-appropriate for the early 21st Century in the Tech Capital of the Pacific Northwest.
The movie follows these two primary characters along what is supposed to be an evolution for both of them, but they are both such cardboard-cutouts that I couldn’t invest myself in them emotionally. I believe the word “telecommunications” was uttered once at the beginning of the film to explain how this young hipster has more money than Bill Gates at the ripened, experienced age of twenty-seven, but that’s as far as we go in learning about how this young pup has all this “success” before most men have made it out of their first cubicle. We got a little more explanation about Anastasia’s roots than Christian’s, but what little we learned about him was of how he is now, not his past. We did learn he was adopted, but not much else after that.
This is the point where I begin to hear all the readers out there screaming “you learn all that from what they say in the second book!” Fine and dandy, but I’m talking about this movie, not some book I’ll never read, and this movie didn’t tell me enough to make me care about these people, and if this dialogue was brought over from those books, then it should’ve been dumped for more life-like speech. Lines which may work on the printed page of best-selling novels are sometimes cringe-worthy when actually heard spoken aloud (as Harrison Ford claims he once said to George Lucas on the set of Return of the Jedi, “you can write this shit, George, but you sure can’t SAY it!)
Taylor-Johnson only has one previous feature film to her directorial credit, 2009’s Nowhere Boy, a speculative-type study of the early life of John Lennon. I have not seen this film, but I see on IMdB that it received widely-varied reviews, further evidence for me that Fifty Shades’ failings may not all be her fault. As I mentioned earlier, I thought she did as good a job as she possibly could have with what she was assigned to do, although I wonder if she had the filmmaking wisdom to realize this material needed lots of reworking before any frame should have been shot, or was she so grateful for the job that she didn’t want to rock the boat and suggest changes to something that was already so wildly successful in another medium. Alas, I may never know.
There possibly could be a very interesting story about the emotional damage that would lead someone into such deviant sexual habits, and how those personality shortcomings could destroy any potential for a fulfilling, healthy relationship… Oh, wait, there has been - it was Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. THAT’S the movie this flick wishes it could be.