As anyone who has ever watched a romantic comedy knows, “no” in Hollywood isn’t a complete sentence. It's an invitation to convince, coerce, and send roomfuls of flowers until the love interest acquiesces.
So, it should come as no surprise that Fifty Shades of Grey relies heavily on that idea, but it's still, at times, uncomfortable viewing. In real life, if a man sought you out at work, bought you thousands of dollars’ worth of books, tracked you down when drunk at a bar, and then, instead of returning you to your friends, took you back to his hotel room where he sized you up for new clothes, you'd call the police, not your best gal pal. You certainly wouldn’t take the nondescript pills he left on the bedside table while he went for a run.
“Rope, tape, cable ties. You’re the complete serial killer.” #megangoestofiftyshades— Megan Whelan (@meganjwhelan) February 11, 2015
DON’T TAKE RANDOM PILLS LEFT ON A TABLE WHEN YOU WAKE UP IN A HOTEL ROOM BY SOMEONE YOU CALLED A SERIAL KILLER. #megangoestofiftyshades— Megan Whelan (@meganjwhelan) February 11, 2015
Granted, I went to see Fifty Shades of Grey expecting to hate it. After all, I’ve read E L James’ books, and I have very few good things to say about them. But after seeing four separate women openly reading it on a plane I wanted to see what there was to love about books that started life as Twilight fanfiction.
I read all three and I still don’t know what’s to love. They’re just not very good books. Mostly because they’re poorly written, but also because they’re full of cringe-worthy dialogue and inner monologue. I do not care about about-to-be college graduate Anastasia Steele’s “inner goddess”, and what dance moves it does when confronted by handsome, single, high thread count billionaire Christian Grey.
Luckily, inner monologue is tough to film, and so we rely on Dakota Johnson’s portrayal – which, at least is humorous. So many of the lines that have come straight from the book and are, at best, hokey: “I don’t make love. I f&^k. Hard,” says Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey. Johnson’s Ana has the grace to laugh.
“She’s an ordinary, guileless, somewhat clueless young woman — kind of basic, as they say nowadays — pulled into the orbit of an enigmatic aristocrat with peculiar tastes and dark secrets,” writes the New York Times’ A O Scott. She’s also quite charming, and makes the pull of a man who comes across as frankly, kind of a jerk, almost believable.
In the next-to-first shot of Ana, she’s looking in a mirror, all big eyes and heavy fringe. We next see her looking hilariously out of place at Grey House, timid in a cardigan and messy ponytail amongst the grey-clad Amazons who staff Mr Grey. He towers over her, mocking her degree and literature tastes, before apparently realising she’s a babe, and he wants her.
And wanting her means getting her to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and then a contract full of sex acts he wants to perform on her; to have her “please him”. Dornan’s Grey is all surface. Fancy suits and a house full of shiny objects, but aside from ordering Ana around, he says little. Like Edward in Twilight and the book version, maybe the idea is for people to project their own image onto that surface. But against Dakota Johnson’s sassier Anastasia, he just looks a little lost.
“I’ll hold on to my free will a little longer,” she says, to which he has no comeback but to grab her and kiss her. Which seems to be his comeback to everything. That, or taking off his shirt to reveal abs and the scars which are supposed to explain his aversion to being touched.
The scene in which they negotiate the contract is hilariously awkward – from the interruption of Grey’s staff to Ana’s forthright declaration that she won’t be having anything to do with fisting of any kind, thanks very much. Shot in a low red light, it’s meant to be sexy, and it’s just not, because what two people could actually get through that situation without it ending in tears of laughter?
Much is made of the sex in Fifty Shades of Grey, and whether it's what women secretly want (because women all want the same thing, amirite?). And yes, there's a lot of sex, some of it kinky – though no more so than you could see on TV. A friend tells a joke about a man asking his wife if there’s anything she read in a book that she’d like to try. Her answer? “I’d like it if you had a private plane.” The sex in the film isn’t much less cheesy.
There’s talk of floggers and safewords and cuffs and blindfolds, and Christian’s “needs” – which of course spring from childhood trauma – but in the end, it’s all very pedestrian. Lots of arching and moaning and heavy beats from the (actually excellent) soundtrack. Thank God for Bey. By the fourth cycle of banging and then fighting about their emotional issues, I was thoroughly bored.
More qualified reviewers than me have written about why the Fifty Shades franchise just isn’t very good. People have also written about how the books show a relationship that’s less about kinky sex, and more about coercion, stalking (NSFW) and blurring the lines of consent. It has inspired some excellent memes, as well as activism.
In the end, the film is better than I expected (which isn’t to say it’s good.). If you can leave the creepy stalker vibes at the door (though by all means, don’t), it’s significantly better than the books – mostly because so much of the awful prose has necessarily been dropped. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson could have made it much more campy – been more true to the books – but she erred on the side of actually trying to tell a story. It’s not a good movie, but it could have been much much worse.
There seems to be an idea that Fifty Shades is shocking. And tastefully R-rated as is it, it’s just not. The fantasy isn’t so much in the overwrought BDSM scenes, but the idea that a girl, fresh from university has a rich, troubled, billionaire with a private plane just waiting to woo her. And she gets to fix him. This is the oldest airport-novel-romance trope there is.
Cover Image: Universal Pictures