Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

2015 Fifty Shades of Grey - Universal PicturesBetter than the book, not as hardcore as you probably expect, and people determined to dislike it will still dislike it. The film never forgets its most important audience — the fans of the book.

Jodi and Kat were on 2SER’s Double X program talking about Fifty Shades of Grey and female sexuality with Rudi and Jess. You can listen to the podcast here.

I went to see Fifty Shades of Grey with absolutely no expectations. I say that in all sincerity, as someone who has only managed fifty pages of the first book (I’m still not calling it a DNF because I hold out hope that one day I’ll get back to it) but was open to the possibility that the film, unencumbered by E L James’s prose, can offer a more compelling way of telling the same story.

Only a few minutes into the film and it’s clear that this is a different beast to the book. Unlike the book, which revolves around the fantasy that is Christian Grey, Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia Steele is the heart of the film. Her Ana is gauche but charming, and Johnson infuses the dialogue — which is frankly laughable in the book — with humour and a kind of cheekiness that serves as a wink to fans while acknowledging how ridiculous some of it might be. Even the lip-biting isn’t too grating, although it does get a bit tiresome after a while, and I suspect was only kept in so that Christian can say some of the more popular lines from the book.

In constrast, Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey is flat, insincere and lacks the complexity needed to make the romance work. His Christian just doesn’t come together — not his awkward way of speaking, or the fact that the camera just could not seem to find a good angle for his face (because, yes, the shirtless scenes were just fine), and not the perplexed look that seemed to vex his character for the entire film.

Plot-wise, there isn’t much to tell. This is a romance, with faux-BDSM as a foil to keep Ana and Christian apart. That’s it, and that’s exactly what I love about the film. There is nothing pretentious about what it tries to be, and it expects the audience to understand this. For this reason, I suspect the film will be difficult to appreciate if you don’t understand the appeal of the alpha hero pursuing the ingenue. Screenplay writer Kelly Marcel pares back James’s original text to present a more subtle story, but it also relies on the audience to fill in the blanks. Some of the problematic elements — such as Christian suddenly appearing in Ana’s apartment after she appears to brush him off — are less troubling when viewed from the lens of a romance reader (or audience). Surprisingly, I was more than happy to fill in the blanks with the assumption that this is indeed a romantic film, whereas in the book, which is entirely in Ana’s perspective, Ana’s internal monologue is such that I wondered what he saw in her. The film’s Ana is a much more sympathetic character, and this was both unexpected and satisfying.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson does an amazing job of translating some fairly tedious prose to screen, teasing out some lovely nuances and lingering on interesting themes in a way that James wasn’t able to do, possibly because she wrote the story as a serial. Fifty Shades of Grey is a romance — the lowest common denominator in fiction, if some are to be believed — but by god, it’s a beautifully made film. Again, I love this. Aesthetically, Fifty Shades of Grey is gorgeous, dominated (ha!) by sultry blues that set up an obvious contrast to the Red Room of Pain, in which Christian keeps his BDSM toys. Everything and everyone is stunning on screen, and this artifice is a constant reminder that the story is merely fantasy.

I don’t usually notice the soundtrack, but it was definitely a feature of the film. The musical score is also fabulous, with the possible exception of the elevator music playing throughout Ana’s interview of Christian — that was a little distracting. Beyoncé’s Crazy In Love is perfectly timed with the first crack of the riding crop.

The story does suffer from the some of the same issues as the book. Ana is a twenty-something woman whose tastes and habits are a little…nanna, though Dakota Johnson almost manages to convince me that her character is merely quirky rather than anachronistic. Christian comes across as borderline — or if I’m being honest, over the line — stalkerish, and Dornan just tries too hard and looks uncomfortable all the time. There is no subtext to his high-handedness, and it falls to Johnson’s Ana to push back and display Ana’s independence and agency against Christian — which she does in subtle, wonderful ways. I mourned the missed opportunities to give Christian a personality, a sense of humour, and an intensity that would convince me he was someone that Ana would fall in love with. What Gabriel Macht’s Harvey Specter or Ian Somerhalder’s Damon Salvatore could have done with this character!

The film keeps some of the book’s cheesiest lines, and again, Ana pulls them off but Christian does not. His ‘Laters, baby’ is so excruciatingly awkward that I have no doubt Dornan himself was embarrassed to be saying it. My favourite quote, ‘Necrophilia is not my thing’ is a nudge to viewers aware of the book’s origins as Twilight fan fiction. There are similar homages to the book throughout, though some will no doubt roll their eyes at the lip-biting and the pencil nibbling and at lines like, ‘I don’t make love; I fuck. Hard.’ A man in the theatre kept clearing his throat whenever Christian would say such doozies, and I wanted to smack him for it. Cheesy they might be, but the film does not forget its most important audience — the fans of the book.

That said, the camera is at times a little too conscious of its audience when lingering on Christian, making Dornan’s scenes look unnatural and stilted (or it could just be Dornan; the jury is still out). The moment when Ana sees him standing in front of a helicopter was, I admit, heart-stoppingly thrilling, and there’s a very Disney-like theme to their over-the-top first date, culminating in a visit to the Red Room of Pain, which Christian obliquely calls his playroom, and about which Ana asks, ‘What? Like your X-box?’ before being allowed inside.

The first sex scene — in which Christian is so overcome by Ana’s magical virginal hooha that he forgoes all thought of bondage and has sweet, romantic sex with her on his bed — is everything that is sex in romance. Later, Ana wakes up, wraps herself in a blanket and walks towards Christian at the piano, and I thought we would get a piano scene to rival Pretty Woman, but he picks her up and takes her back to bed.

When Ana and Christian begin negotiating the contract for their dom/sub relationship, it gets a little strange. I felt that some of the items in the contract would be difficult to Ana to understand, much less consent to. And then there was the spanking, which should have been cut out altogether because it was so cringe-worthy I was literally screwing up my face while watching it. I’m not sure anyone could have made that scene sexy, and it was the only time I felt the male gaze in the camera. Finally, Ana playfully brushes Christian off via instant message, and he shows up at inside her apartment unannounced.

This is the point where a lot of people would yell, Stalker!, and urge Ana to leave right now. I’m not one of those people, and it’s all due to Johnson’s portrayal. Her reaction to Christian, and her insistence that she will take as much time as she needs to think about her decision, allows me to assume that she has given Christian implicit permission. (I just assumed she gave him a key to her apartment — after all, she happily allowed him to enter her magical virginal hooha.) There were two instances where I felt that Christian was much too domineering: when he sells her car, and when he follows her when she visits her mother (played by Jennifer Ehle, who many might recognise as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice). Again, it fell to Dornan to put some context around Christian’s actions, and he couldn’t pull off a sympathetic hero with control issues.

2015 Fifty Shades of Grey - Jennifer Ehle - Universal Pictures
Photo: Chuck Zlotnick for Universal Pictures

Despite the assumption that Fifty Shades of Grey is primarily a skin flick for women, most of the nudity involves Johnson. I love that when Christian slowly takes off her trousers, we see hair on her legs, and she has pubic hair, albeit ever so tidy. Her skin is smooth but not airbrushed, and when the sex gets vigorous, it at least seems as though the characters are getting hot and sweaty. There are some sly peeks at Dornan’s more intimate bits (bum shots are always a nice back-up), and I read somewhere that there is penis tip involved [Edited to add: Apparently, it’s the TOP of his penis — the bit you see when he unzips his jeans (NSFW). Thanks to Kaetrin for the link!], but I can’t recall seeing it — I could have been writing my review notes at the time, which is a testament of how seriously I’m taking this, people!

Somewhat disappointingly, the sex scenes are fairly vanilla with a touch of light bondage. (For the curious, check out the list of sex scenes excluded from the film.) Christian’s playroom lacks anything really scary — even the handcuffs look padded. The scenes linger more on the setting up the scene — Christian tying knots, or attaching restraints. And while I can see how they could be triggering, the sex scenes did not come across as abusive — Ana’s consent and agency were very obvious for me. The film is at pains to show her challenging Christian’s behaviour, both in and out of the bedroom.

More problematic is the portrayal of Christian’s need for dominance as a result of a childhood trauma — an integral part of the plot that the film couldn’t really deviate from. While I can accept this as a reason that Christian was drawn BDSM, it doesn’t make sense that he would continue to do it if it gives him no pleasure. It’s at odds with his earlier cajoling of Ana — that the dom/sub relationship is for both their pleasure. It also doesn’t make sense that Ana is suddenly angry at Christian’s need to be a dominant in bed. The film misses the chance to stretch the sexual tension to fever pitch because it muddies up the waters between BDSM as a pleasurable activity, Ana’s enjoyment of previous bondage scenes, and Christian’s unreasonable need to control Ana’s behaviour outside the bedroom. It all suddenly becomes about Christian’s need to ‘hurt’ Ana, and because I had been led to assume that Ana was enjoying submission during sex, it didn’t make sense that this would be a huger deal than, say, Christian resenting her visit to her mother.

And yet, although I didn’t really believe their big conflict, the final sex scene is incredibly powerful and disturbing. Ana asks Christian to show her his worst, and he whips her with what looks like a leather belt six times. Okay, yes, they crossed out anal fisting in the contract, and the worst he could do was six strokes, so clearly it doesn’t really make sense. But oh, the angst! The feels! Dakota Johnson’s tears are heartbreaking, and even Jamie Dornan’s impassive face makes sense.

From there, the film races to the end beautifully. The final scene is tight and tense, a beautiful juxtaposition against Ana’s first meeting with Christian. The ending would have been perfect if Ana had used her safe word outside the Red Room, but sadly, this ending was apparently nixed by EL James. It didn’t really matter in the end. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

YAY OR NAY?

Fifty Shades of Grey is better than the book, and if you’re mildly curious about the story, it’s worth a trip to the cinema. The camera work is gorgeous, the direction is tight, and Jamie Dornan’s wooden performance is more than offset by Dakota Johnson’s surprisingly nuanced treatment of a protagonist that, in the original text, is fairly one-dimensional. The sex scenes are nowhere as hardcore as people would have you believe. And while those determined to dislike it will still dislike it, the film never forgets its most important audience — the fans of the book.

If you can’t get enough of Fifty Shades of Grey, these reviews on Marie Claire and Slate closely reflect what I felt about the film. I also found this analysis an interesting alternative perspective on the BDSM themes (via @SonomaLass).

Who might enjoy it: Fans, curious bystanders, and possibly the partners they drag along

Who might not enjoy it: People who don’t understand that it’s a film for fans of the book

Title: Fifty Shades of Grey
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Distributor: Universal Pictures

DIGITAL:  iTunes AU | Quickflix
DVD: Booktopia | Fishpond
WORLDWIDE: Amazon | Flixster | Library

8 comments

  1. mharvey816 says:

    Thank you for this review. It sounds like we had similar reactions to this movie, even though I have read the books and you haven’t. I’m sad now in the wake of the recent news that the director won’t return for the upcoming sequels as I was genuinely looking forward to seeing how she managed to turn those even more problematic books into something as watchable as this was.

  2. Robin says:

    I love this commentary. Agree completely that the film, unencumbered by the clunky, uninspired prose, allows for more nuance. Also all the visual symbolism (SonomaLass pointed out that the wallpaper in Anna’s “room” at Christian’s features an image of a bird in a cage with the cage door open, clearly a sign of her freedom to leave at any point) was fascinating. I also love your point about how the connection between Christian’s background and the way the film tries to balance the pleasure and pain dynamic is really awkward and difficult to bridge. I hadn’t honed in on that until you pointed it out.

    Re Anna’s character, I felt that Johnson portrayed her as a young woman who had so little experience that she did not know what she wanted or expected from this relationship – and so much of what she puts up with is a function of her inexperience and her process of figuring out what her own boundaries were, inside the red room and outside of it. Which is how I read the book, too, and probably why I never read her as an abused doormat (especially as she grows over the course of the next two books), despite the obvious boundaries Christian crosses and his dominance as a character in the books. Watching the movie, and watching her develop that part of the character with such clarity reiterated to me what I find interesting about the book, despite the major weaknesses in craft and the more problematic aspects of the story. But then I tend to be a more heroine-centric reader, which may make a difference here, especially since Johnson, as an actor, ran circles around Dornan.

    As for the ending, I am glad they didn’t use one of her safe words. Because if she had used her soft-limit word, IMO it would have made her look weak at a moment she needed to look strong. And if she used her hard-limit word, how could she back off that later without looking weak. The word she used was ambiguous because it was outside the contract vocabulary (especially since Anna hadn’t yet signed the thing), which for me served her position at the end of that installment.

  3. Janet W says:

    I’m so glad you reiterated so many times that this was a film for fans of the book–that goes a long way to explaining it. Sometimes creative tension can make for amazing results so it will be very interesting to see who the new director turns out to be. Worth noting, the chairwoman of Universal, Donna Langley (currently the only woman in Hollywood who can greenlight a movie, isn’t that outrageous?) persuaded E L James to sign with Universal because she promised the books (and I suppose their fans) would be respected. Given that I have zero respect for Hollywood’s ability to wreck a good thing by trying to wrench out just a little more money, I’m content that someone (James) will say no to “Hollywood” trying to homogenize this franchise. Like her or hate her, she’s completely attuned to fan expectations so I’d be astonished, for instance, if the emphasis on the “female gaze” didn’t continue. But it would be great to get an artistic, strong woman director who can tussle with her.

    I’d like to link to an article that resonated with me so much–basically the author is saying women are tortured, tied up, killed and any number of other things and who says anything? I remember my feeling after seeing SEVEN (Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow)…why did they have to kill the wife? Why?

    Rather jumbled comments but anyway, here’s a link to the article in Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2015/02/16/fifty-shades-of-grey-is-a-sex-fantasy-of-consent-in-a-sea-of-damsels-in-distress/

    Janet

  4. Remittance Girl says:

    I’m not an erotic romance buff but I did plow my way through the book because I’m doing a doctorate on eroticism in contemporary creative writing. Similarly, I wasn’t all that stoked to see the film, but I did it for due diligence reasons.

    You make a very good point about how the movie forgoes the worse of E.L. James’ poor prose – I was very glad to see those internal dialogue bits dropped. A goddess voice-over would have been unbearable. And it should be a lesson for all erotica writers that it is possible to get a great deal of internal conflict across without it.

    I can’t say I found the dialogue as clever as you did, but I agree heartily that Dakota Johnson does very well with the lines she has. They cast an actress who made the character much more engaging and likable than I found the book version of Anastasia.

    I’m brewing a bit of a theory as to why Jaime Dornan didn’t work at all. In all fairness, his character is the one most faithfully transitioned from the book to the film. He’s wooden, humourless and self-important, but so is the book’s character. My guess is that Christian Grey works well as a fantasy cypher into which readers can invest more meaning than is available on the page. The text on a page leaves a LOT of room for readers to insert their illusions and make excuses for him. The film delivers a much more rigid, WISIWYG character. It’s visual nature simply doesn’t allow for ‘writerly reading’.

  5. Fiona Marsden says:

    This is a great review and echoes a lot of thoughts I had with the movie. I made it to chapter 6, hoping like the Twilight books that the writing would improve. The story as talked about always seemed to me to be a classic Mills & Boon with the traditional virgin and dominant male with added BDSM. So of course I was attracted but simply couldn’t struggle through the verbiage.
    The only thing I didn’t quite agree with here was the use of the safe word. If she had used it, it would have indicated acceptance of the contract relationship. I felt by not using it, she indicated more strongly her rejection of the whole BDSM thing.

  6. Kat says:

    Robin — I had actually forgotten that she didn’t even sign the contract! It definitely felt like a sexual coming of age story to me, and I think Dakota pretty much played it that way, too.

    Janet — I love that article. Thank you! I think it helps to compare it to other films where the female characters are plot devices for the men. I think that also helps articulate what I mean about ‘female gaze’, which came up on Twitter this morning and which I found difficult to describe other than the old ‘I know it when I see it.’ I also skimmed the article below the one you linked to (also written by Scott Mendelson) and it got me thinking that most (all?) romance fiction are really female power fantasies. I think this goes some way to explaining why the genre tolerates odious heroes — because it’s not actually about them at all. It’s about the heroine’s power to change if not who they are, but who they are with her.

  7. Kat says:

    Remittance Girl — We chatted a little bit about this on Twitter. My personal opinion is that Dornan never found the sense of empathy with Christian that he needed to add some complexity to the character. The aggressive behaviour, for example, needed to be tempered by something — a look in his eye, a hint in his body language — other than possessiveness. It needed internal angst outside of the dialogue.

    Fiona — It’s interesting that you associate the safe word with the contract, which I kind of forgot about, tbh. So I can see why ELJ might have fought against my preferred ending!

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