Just in case you’ve been living like a hermit and it’s passed you by, rolling into cinemas this weekend was arguably the most anticipated film of the year (although not in our house – Star Wars and Avengers: Age of Ultron top it, kinksters or not), Fifty Shades of Grey.
Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of the books. As a self-confessed submissive married to my dominant, I read them, but I found the relationship between the two characters worryingly abusive rather than romantic – perpetuating myths that all of us into D/s are somehow fundamentally broken, as well as glossing over the genuine pleasure subs can get from doing painful, hot, humiliating things, instead implying that from a bottom’s perspective D/s is to be endured rather than actively enjoyed. I also have a professional interest in all things Grey, having written Diary of a Submissive and No Ordinary Love Story, promoted by Penguin as the ‘real life Fifty Shades’ (although we don’t have a red room of pain or interminably long sex contracts).
All of which meant when I was given the opportunity to review the movie for the lovely folk at Volonté I had a host of ready-made excuses to see it and was curious to see what it was like, even if my expectations were pretty low.
In actual fact, watching Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t a completely masochistic act. If you’re expecting a total turkey this isn’t it, and for my money I actually enjoyed it a lot more than the books – although admittedly that’s not saying much.
This is mostly down to Dakota Johnson’s Ana. There’s still lip biting aplenty, but the lack of inner monologue (and thankfully no inner goddess, doing the merengue or otherwise) makes her a lot more sparky and likeable than the dithering wallflower of the book. I’d still question whether someone popping up in your bedroom uninvited clutching a bottle of booze and two glasses is romantic or actually a bit stalkerish – how does he get in, anyway? – but this Ana is fiery and in places surprisingly funny. The contract negotiation scene actually made me laugh out loud, and I actually think it was written that way on purpose.
Sadly this can’t be said of all the dialogue. One day I’d love to read Patrick Marber’s apparently discarded rewrite of the script, because Kelly Marcel’s version is for the most part cringe-worthy and arguably a great part of the reason why Jamie Dornan struggles so much as our gajillionaire (anti)hero. His Christian is beige, not Grey. Dornan was great – and incredibly intense – in The Fall so I can’t decide if he was just uncomfortable in the role or purely scuppered by his dialogue, but either way his Christian misses the mark. There’s no real chemistry between him and the much-better Johnson, and if you are at the cinema for lechy fun times then you’re definitely out of luck. Christian Grey seemingly has sex with his trousers on. In fact, barring one brief glimpse of pubes, there’s no real proof he actually has a penis. Maybe that’s why his post-coital piano playing sounds so forlorn.
Sam Taylor Johnson’s direction is all very swish but fundamentally lacks substance. We get a Charlie Tango montage – punctuated by the very OTT soundtrack – and lovingly shot glimpses of the Red Room of Pain (very tidy and minimalist, Mr Grey clearly has a house elf with a non-disclosure agreement) but there are a few symbolic directorial conceits so heavy-handed a student filmmaker would be embarrassed to leave them in. When people are sad, it rains. A lot. At one point Ana is lying in bed crying and the shadow of rain runs down the walls she is in such despair. It’s so literal it’s difficult not to laugh.
Whatever you think of the source material, the fact is this was a rare opportunity to bring out a mainstream film aimed at women with filthy sex scenes and an unconventional romance at its core, a Secretary for the new millennium if you like. On this Fifty Shades soars sadly past the mark (possibly in a co-piloted glider). The sex scenes are not just brief but also weirdly shot and not hot in the least. Ana getting hit with the belt is rendered in juddery slow motion and gives us – somewhat disconcertingly – the closest we get to seeing Christian’s orgasm face (on the basis of what we saw, that’s probably for the best). It’s not in any way alluring. In fact, even if the portrayal of D/s in the Fifty Shades novels floats your boat (and if it does we may have to have a chat) you’re going to be disappointed. As my husband muttered when we left: “You moan about the rubbish dialogue in porn films we watch together, but at least the sex in those is hotter than this glorified perfume ad.”
Sadly, 18 certificate or not, he’s not wrong.