Let me begin this review of Fifty Shades of Grey, by stating that I have not read the book or books by E.L. James nor do I intend to read it or them; however, I am a watcher/consumer of popular culture, therefore, I feel that if I want to stay in the pop culture “loop” I should always check out what’s in the news and on everyone’s lips. (That’s how I have come to see all of the Transformers and Twilight films. I suffer for my passions, believe me.)
I have followed the news about the film version of Fifty Shades, beginning with the casting of Charlie Hunnam as the titular damaged billionaire with a penchant for sadism. Having just seen him in Pacific Rim – one of my favorite films of 2013 – I was a bit disappointed that The Sons of Anarchy blonde would even consider sullying himself. To his credit, he dropped out not long after being cast. And then other names started being added: Jamie Dornan, an Irish actor I knew from the brilliant TV series The Fall, as Christian Grey; Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, and the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, as Anastasia Steele; Max Martini, also from Pacific Rim, as the chauffeur; Luke Grimes from HBO’s True Blood, as Grey’s brother, and more.
The film was released for the Valentine’s Day crowd, and, I thought it would be fun to drag my somewhat reluctant moviegoing friend along. At the very least, we could mock it as I had the Twilight series – after all, all of this started as Twilight fan fiction- or we could giggle at how tame the sex scenes were. It would be entertaining even if it didn’t end up being any good.
But you know what? I thought the film was better than good; I thought it was pretty great. Again, I haven’t read the book upon which it is based, but I’ve heard that screenwriter Kelly Marcel made some considerable changes, and they seem to have included making Christian Grey (Dornan) less stalker-y. I’m sure she also made the dialogue smoother, because I never once cringed at how stupid the characters sounded, and I was really worried about that. Marcel co-scripted Saving Mr. Banks, which earned an Oscar nomination so she clearly brought some style and talent to this project. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and her cinematographer Seamus McGarvey also did an exceptional job of crafting a beautiful, stylish, and slick-looking film. I will probably watch Fifty Shades again just to see what they did with lighting and camera placement. This is high quality stuff.
The acting was infinitely better than I had anticipated, too. A few months ago, I watched season two of The Fall on Netflix instant watch. It is such a well-scripted and acted TV series that it reignited my excitement for Dornan. In the series, he plays Paul Spector, a serial killer who has a bondage fetish. Yes, it sounds as if he’s getting typecast. His character is completely reprehensible and yet Dornan has an undeniable charm, which, dare I say it, makes him seem attractive; seductive. Because of what he does in the TV series, you come away feeling as conflicted for liking him as is Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), the MET Detective Superintendent who is doggedly pursuing him. Dornan is a fine actor. I didn’t have any misgivings about him.
In Fifty Shades, Christian Grey is a handsome, sharply dressed billionaire. He seems to be a “catch,” and yet, from the beginning, we get the sense that he is damaged; something isn’t quite right. He needs to control everything around him, especially his female partners, and he is emotionally distant. Dornan is handsome, no doubt, and he plays up his attractiveness by giving us a Byronic portrayal. He knows this guy has some deep-seated issues, and he presents him as slightly dangerous, and “off”; he’s someone with whom you probably shouldn’t become involved. Long-term and intensive therapy is no doubt required. The most interesting choice that the filmmakers made in creating a sense of “unease” about Grey was to include a montage of Grey’s meticulous, minimalistic apartment. Everything is in its place, and all of the suits and ties are lined up as if they were in a department store. Why this was effective for me: The sequence reminded me of the one you find at the beginning of American Psycho. Once I saw it, I knew that Grey, like Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), is not winning any Best Man to Bring Home to Mom awards. And once you see inside of his “red room,” you KNOW this to be true.
Because fans love to complain about everything, many bitched about the casting of Dornan, saying that he just wasn’t the guy they had envisioned. (If I remember correctly, they wanted the current Man of Steel, Henry Cavill. Fat chance, ladies. He ain’t slumming it in your soft core fantasy. He’s too busy, being awesome in other things.) The gripers may have their wish in finding someone more “dreamy.” Rumors are flying that Dornan has exited the franchise, because his wife doesn’t like the sexual content in the film (um, hello!) nor does she like the fact that the film has made her husband a global sensation. Note to Dornan, your wife probably shouldn’t be your wife if this is how she reacts to your acting career! I personally think that once he found out that James is going to adapt the next two novels, he knew that the quality of the product would drop considerably, and he didn’t want to be associated with it. But that’s my wild stab in the dark. If they do replace him, I have no idea with whom, but I can say this: Now that I’ve seen the film, Hunnam made the right decision in exiting the project before it began. He was in no way, shape or form right for this character.
Dornan’s costar, Johnson, was the one who really had me worried. I have seen her act in a few things, and she never seemed right for an acting career. Nepotism seemed to be the only reason she was getting work, so imagine my surprise when she delivered a richly nuanced performance as Anastasia Steele. She was sweet and naïve, but never a victim. And I really appreciate that. To all the people complaining that this installment of the franchise glorifies the subjugation of women; and advocates abusive stalkers, you are wrong. Dead bloody wrong. Rewatch the ending of the film, please, because I think you missed something. As I said, Steele is naïve. She is swept off of her feet by the magnetic and mysterious Grey, and she seemed to be captivated by his power. When she finds out about his proclivities, she acts as if she doesn’t really even believe that he’s into what he is: Binding and spanking. She treats it almost as a joke; she seems to believe that this is a phase, and that she can change him. But by the end of the film, she comes to discover that he really is severely damaged, and she makes a very important choice, which I won’t reveal.
Do I have complaints about the film? Sure. The scene during which Anastasia discovers that Christian really is one messed up dude wasn’t pushed nearly far enough. It should have been much rawer and more unpleasant. As it was, it was a bit silly and didn’t convince me that she would come away from that that psychologically wounded. But that’s a minor aside. Well, I guess another complaint is that as this is supposed to be aimed at titillating women, you see a lot of a naked, very skinny, Johnson, but if I remember correctly, you only get one bare buttocks shot of Dornan. And bare chests don’t count. Women see those all the time. You see more of Dornan in The Fall.
For a film that is making waves for its sex scenes, I found them to be pretty tame. There are infinitely more “shocking” or “raw” ones in many other films. If you are looking for kink, or titillation for that matter, you can’t go wrong with Brian DePalma’s Body Double, which, interestingly stars Johnson’s mom; Adrian Lyne’s 9 ½ Weeks, which was Fifty Shades long before Fifty Shades; David Cronenberg’s Crash; Secretary; Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (vol. 1 and 2); Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and also his The Pillow Book; Perfect Sense; Henry & June; Young Adam; L’Ennui, and probably just about every French film on this planet. I could go on, but I’ve already derailed this conversation enough. In short, if you have seen any of the aforementioned films, you might yawn a bit at Fifty Shades. After all, this isn’t rated NC-17.
As much as one talks about sex when talking about Fifty Shades of Grey, I think the sex is just window dressing for a much bigger issue, and that’s another reason I think it’s notable. Like 9 ½ Weeks, it is about damaged people in damaged relationships, and what that looks like. No matter what anyone is saying, this film doesn’t advocate falling in love with a stalker. It isn’t about allowing yourself to be abused. Anastasia makes some really bad decisions, because she, like many women, thinks that she can change this man; that love will transform him, and, in the end, she seems to come to the realization that he’s damaged beyond repair. I know there are two more films planned, but I would like to see this franchise end here, because it ends on a powerful note. If she goes back to him, all that she seemed to have learned is meaningless.
Will I see the next two films? Depends on with whom they replace Dornan, provided those rumors are real. And if James adapts her own novels, I really do worry that the quality of the franchise is going to become drastically reduced. I don’t even think that the director is being asked to return. All of that makes me really nervous. I guess we will always have Fifty Shades of Grey. I am still contemplating whether or not to buy a copy when it comes out on DVD. But to be sure, the film is a lot better than people might lead you to believe. Don’t believe the naysayers.
Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5