Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Marcia Gay Harden, Jennifer Ehle
Plot: Anastasia Steele (Johnson) is a virgin who becomes fascinated with controlling billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan).
This review doesn’t matter. While watching this film, a cross between a begrudging giving into an impossibly exuberant hype and a slight fascination at the potential of reviewing such a marmite movie, it occurred to me that this is not a movie that will suffer at the hands of bad reviews. It will be no spoiler if I revealed that my review will likely wander onto the dangerous morals hidden beneath the erotic thriller and also be leaning more towards the negative than positive. But that will not affect the film’s sales. Because Fifty Shades of Grey has managed to find that rare pedestal that is a rite of passage. As much as I hated to admit it, this movie is the next generation’s American Pie, that forbidden film that opens the viewer’s eyes to the secrets of sex that other films are too tame to depict. It is that treasure that you aren’t supposed to watch, but for that reason, you are going to do exactly that; track it down and, against your better judgement, watch it. I predict, despite the film being less than ideal on a critical level, a successful financial future ahead for this infamous series.
The tricky part of the review was separating the good points from the bad points. Recently I have accused a few films based on books of not being as good as they appeared, because most of their strong points were down to the source material. With Fifty Shades I found myself considering the opposite. Surely I must blame the most obvious downsides to the narrative on the text the movie is based upon, rather than the director. And when I came to that conclusion, for a short period of time, I found solace within the movie. You cannot help but feel director Sam Taylor-Johnson has been dealt a crap hand when it comes to films. This movie is one born out of a desire for financial gain, the only reason it exists because the book was selling amazingly well and the film was bound to follow that path. Therefore, Fifty Shades is a film being made at the whim of a producer, rather than the passion of a director. Although, credit where credit is due, for a long while, Taylor-Johnson gives Fifty Shades a fighting chance. She cleverly starts the film slow, focused on the magnetic attraction between Anastasia’s shy English student and the anti-social, yet hypnotic Christian Grey. For a long while, there are fun scenes where Christian goes to Anastasia’s shop to buy cable ties and rope, the poor, innocent Anastasia doesn’t click on his intentions. The only thing one can truly gripe about the initial scenes between the two romantic leads is the clear cross-overs between Twilight and the film you are watching, little quirks that felt so novel in the original Twilight, but here are clearly some of the fan-fiction origins of the source text clinging onto existence. There are even moments of in the later parts of the films which surprisingly impress. Taylor-Johnson knows that her audience are craving to see the sex scenes and therefore you cannot help but feel that, while outside of the sex scenes the lighting and visual imagery (Anastasia chewing a pencil – phallic object – given to her by Grey), have moments worth praising, the director puts most of the hard work into bringing as many of the infamous erotic moments from the novel to life on the big screen. Critics must have had their pens waiting with bated breath to prepare for the criticising of Anastasia’s time in the Red Room. Were the sex scenes going to wuss out and go with a tame cutting away to the morning after? Or were we going to get everything on show, creating a sleazy light on the whole affair, an excuse to see some naked flesh on show? They must have been disappointed to find Taylor-Johnson’s finished result a satisfying blend of the two. There is no shying away from the nudity, Dakota Johnson (who like the director manages to rise above the material), being stripped of her clothing vital for the atmosphere and characterisation, but it isn’t filmed in a way that feels degrading. In fact, there is an artistic style to the more intimate moments, so even when the movie surprisingly doesn’t cut away from certain sexual acts, it feels less intrusive than you would imagine, graceful shadows dancing over their bodies, micro-expressions that show that the performances are not yet dropping…
Still, there is only so much that can be done to rescue the film from such a poor starting point. I found myself jumping from praising the director for what she had done with the piece, yet at the same time really loathing this film. And a large part of that is me being uncomfortable about what this movie stands for. Because, it is the next generation’s cult movie, the forbidden fruit that young teenagers first exploring their sexuality will turn to, it has a certain level of responsibility for helping maturing young adults. American Pie, the movie that held that title for my generation, was about sex, but also about safely steering through your high school years and teaching young men (and we could argue women), how to go about losing your virginity with respect for the other sex. Fifty Shades of Grey’s morals are… well, wrong. And perhaps I cannot blame E.L James fully for this. Her original story was a piece of erotic literature that stemmed from her fantasy. I am not suggesting that anyone who partakes in BDSM has wrong morals in the slightest. The problem is that when this movie becomes the centre of such a cult following, generalising the issue creates a few uncomfortable beats in the story. In fact, most of the uncomfortable moments of this movie aren’t even the sex scenes, the controlling nature of BDSM a natural and organic extension of the story. It is the moments outside of the clearly consensual sex where Christian Grey’s controlling nature becomes the source of controversy. When she tries to get some space and solace from his attitude, he tracks her down and enters her personal space against her will. He imposes his views of her friendship group on her. His ordering around of the character becomes less romantic and more of a control freak, unable to comprehend that Anastasia might be her own woman. And this is the message that is being sent out to the young teenagers seeking this movie out. The controlling nature in their relationship, that awkwardly resembles grooming during the early stages of the film, is being made out to be the norm for couples. If it wasn’t for my knowledge of the context of the book, I would assume Sam Taylor-Johnson was leading my way through an erotic thriller, where Christian Grey was not a romantic lead, but a twisted villain. As it stands, 50 Shades is unable to escape the context outside of itself, almost already out-of-date before it has even begun.
Final Verdict: Sam Taylor-Johnson tries her hardest to make such a controversial book work, but she can only do so much.