Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

Blindfolds back on – Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation struggles to serve E.L. James’s Kindle-busting BDSM bestseller.


from our April 2015 issue

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Reading the first reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey, I wondered whether female critics had been banned from attending the film’s last-minute press screenings. The male critics had a good old laugh at the film as they vied to write the most disparaging and entertaining review. It was a warning – to their readers, to E.L. James and to the film’s director – effectively saying, “Your ‘erotica’ may be popular but God forbid anyone would take this rubbish seriously. And by the way, we can write better than you can (even if you’ve made a fortune).”

Then came the second wave of responses, from women who wanted to like it or to be shocked but found the film anticlimactic. Where’s the sex? Where’s the feminist agenda? This isn’t BDSM, this is domestic abuse.

In directing this film, Sam Taylor-Johnson held a poisoned chalice. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a boundary-pushing female Shame, but nor is it the golden turkey that some would wish. Like the novel, it is a singular phenomenon, an international box-office smash hit by a female British director aimed squarely at a female audience.

Like Cinderella, Bluebeard, Pygmalion or Twilight, it is a romantic fantasy and a fairytale, a story of sexual awakening in which the innocent heroine’s inherent strengths allow her to battle monsters, in this case capitalism and a male sexuality twice-warped by childhood abuse and adolescent manipulation. Wicked witches are omnipresent in this story, whether it’s Christian’s birth mother, the shadowy ‘Mrs Robinson’ with whom he had a relationship when he was 16, or Ana’s mother, on to her fourth husband and having such a great time that she can’t make it to her daughter’s graduation.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Danny Elfman’s score weaves its dark, twinkling magic around the story, bringing out the archetypal fantasy. Towering glass-and-chrome corporate landscapes replace the dark forests of classic fairytales and much of the film’s mise en scène brings to mind the great expressive excesses of Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas, lavish women’s pictures such as Written on the Wind (1956) with its chain of unrequited love. Its palette based around the four elements, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography captures the film’s reflective surfaces while introducing shadows and depth. A shot of Christian and Ana making love pans upwards to reveal a dark mirror on the ceiling, their image like an underwater chimera or shunga painting. (Memo to Taylor-Johnson: jellyfish in an aquarium would have been amazing.)

Storm clouds are always on the horizon, and when it rains it pours. Ana goes up in the air in the helicopter and glider sequences; much derided as examples of the film’s silly, stereotypical displays of conspicuous wealth, these scenes are breathtaking and joyous, referencing the title of Erica Jong’s milestone novel about female sexuality, Fear of Flying. The walls of Christian’s office glow red and orange like the fires of hell as he and Ana negotiate the contract by which she will become the submissive to his dominant, and the ‘Red Room of Pain’ speaks for itself.

It is in one of the film’s ‘earth scenes’, when Ana and Christian walk like babes in the wood, that he tells her the story of his adolescent submission to his mother’s friend, ‘Mrs Robinson’. The film borrows big from Grimm, and also from Alice in Wonderland; the hangover painkillers by Ana’s bedside are labelled ‘Eat Me’, the juice ‘Drink Me’. Ana falls down an internet rabbit hole when she begins to research her subject online, looking at Dita Von Teese bondage pictures – a sly reference to the burlesque stripper’s real-life urging of women to read erotica by the likes of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin rather than Fifty Shades.

The casting of the film was famously difficult, as Fifty Shades fans bayed their disapproval in the background. But Dakota Johnson (daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, granddaughter of Tippi Hedren) is terrific as Ana, a latterday Tess of the d’Urbervilles, reluctant yet curious and questioning, rapidly proving herself incompatible with the “50 shades of fucked up” control-freak Christian. Johnson brings to mind Charlotte Gainsbourg in An Impudent Girl (rather than the older nymphomaniac), not least when Christian plays Chopin’s ‘Prelude Op. 28 No. 4 in E Minor’ on the piano, a piece of music sampled by Serge Gainsbourg in his love song for ‘Jane B’ (Birkin).

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

In the absence of any really explicit sex, the chemistry between the leads strains to be there. Jamie Dornan (The Fall) is not the plank that some male critics have described and puts in a decent performance, but he isn’t the sexy beast of the Fifty Shades reader’s imagination, nor does he beat Jamie Bell’s recent turn as a melancholic whip-cracking sadist in Nymph(0)maniac.

One of the disorientating things about the film adaptation is the shift in point of view. Whereas the book begins with Ana looking in the mirror and is told from her point of view, the film’s opening scenes are mostly of Christian, setting up his world for Ana to enter. The upside is the loss of Ana’s annoying inner voice (“Holy crap!” she exclaims repeatedly in the book) and her inner goddess, an irritating Tinkerbell that most readers long to squash underfoot.

But while James’s novel luxuriates in Ana’s descriptions of Christian, and particularly his erection, the film barely allows the viewer’s gaze to linger on the face let alone the body of Dornan’s character. This is a far cry from the director’s video David commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in 2004, a single long take of the footballer David Beckham sleeping that allows the viewer to gaze voyeuristically at his beauty. Equally exposing of their subjects are Taylor-Johnson’s earlier gallery film Brontosaurus (1995), showing a naked man dancing in slow-motion, and her short film Death Valley (2006), depicting a man masturbating in the desert.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

There have been several films featuring BDSM imagery and/or themes, subliminally in the mainstream (Daniel Craig’s James Bond tied naked to a chair and beaten in Casino Royale) or explicitly in the art house (the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet or Catherine Breillat, Maîtresse, Belle de Jour, The Night Porter, Mano destra, Secretary and most recently The Duke of Burgundy). The closest predecessor of Fifty Shades is probably 9½ Weeks (1986), another sexually driven US mainstream movie phenomenon based on a novel by a woman, and Taylor-Johnson includes a nod to that film’s ice cubes and blindfolds. But whereas 9½ Weeks became famous for a number of set pieces – the food sequence, the male drag scene, the ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ striptease – it’s difficult to identify a single watercooler moment or destined-to-be-classic scene in Fifty Shades.

Despite the fact that more explicit material, filthier language and dirtier jokes have already been unleashed by 18-certificate studio pictures, Universal was obviously not out to challenge the parameters of mainstream taste or the boundaries of the BBFC and its worldwide equivalents. In the UK at least the film was passed uncut, leaving no hope of seeing a director’s version. One suspects that Taylor-Johnson was never free even to push at the edges of sexual representation, and the film’s lack of explicit imagery and grit is one of its disappointments. That this has been the predominant articulated response may be apt, because the story is about wanting more: he’s gorgeous, wealthy and makes her come, but he doesn’t do hearts and flowers and he won’t let her sleep with or touch him.

The film ends so abruptly that audiences look around in dismay – is that all there is?

  • Sight & Sound: the April 2015 issue

    Sight & Sound: the April 2015 issue

    Remake/remodel: 50 of the most intriguing director’s cuts and alternative versions. Plus Agnès Varda, Věra Chytilová, Takahata Isao, Adam...

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