Few people took Fifty Shades of Grey seriously, even the masses who read it. And neither does the inevitable movie adaptation, written by Kelly Marcel and directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Which is too bad, really, for the result is a lukewarm exercise in timidity that – if not exactly embarrassed by its subject matter – is extremely wary of diving too deeply into it.
I suppose that would be fine if the film at least generated some sort of sexual heat or was instead a blackly comic deconstruction of its source material, along the lines of Mary Harron’s American Psycho. But Fifty Shades of Grey is neither. The picture is disinterested in serious social commentary (a disappointment, given the prominent place of sexual ethics in the current cultural conversation). And aside from one spicy dinner-table detente – lit as if it were taking place in its own red light district – the movie too often resembles someone furiously trying to rub two sticks together, hoping in vain for a hint of smoke.
The main problem is one of the sticks. As Christian Grey, the steely young billionaire with a taste for BDSM, Jamie Dornan has the same handsome vagueness of the last few actors who’ve been cast as Superman (and whose names I’ve already forgotten). This is supposed to be a man of privacy and reserve, yes, but Dornan plays those qualities to the point of becoming a mannequin. Taylor-Johnson’s camera lingers on his face for much of the movie, waiting for a spark that never comes.
This is supposed to be a man of reserve, but Dornan plays those qualities to the point of becoming a mannequin.
Dornan also brings very little chemistry to his scenes with Dakota Johnson, whose Anastasia Steele is the inexperienced English major who falls under Christian’s preying gaze. A virgin – literally and figuratively – Anastasia is at first wooed by his money (he tops Foxcatcher’s John du Pont by having a helicopter with a leather interior), then his intensity. When he reveals that he’s not interested in romance, but rather her concession to being his sexual submissive, she’s both unnerved and intrigued.
The movie wants this to be a struggle for Anastasia, but the struggle is communicated in the most rudimentary of ways. Johnson’s scenes operate in one of two modes: physical pleasure (including softcore cinematography that does nothing to mitigate the objectification element) and emotional pain. She moans in one scene; cries in another. And then the movie repeats. We barely see the meeting and mixing of those two experiences, any sense of real struggle or conflict. Fifty Shades of Grey – and Johnson’s performance – is distinctly missing the sort of intricacy Diane Lane brought to the infidelity thriller Unfaithful, especially the remarkable scene in which euphoria, guilt, pride and embarrassment all race across her face during a train ride home from an illicit tryst.
In the end, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t worth getting too bothered about, no matter how dubious its sexual politics might be. It never really takes a position on questions of consent or gender equality, just as it conveniently portrays Christian’s sexual preferences both as something enticing and something of which he needs to be cured. For a movie with whips and chords, Fifty Shades plays things awfully safe.