Fifty Shades of Grey is somewhat remarkable in the sense that it introduces the viewer to a genuinely new experience of being simultaneously outraged, perplexed and above all bored to tears without much ever really happening.
Based on E. L. James’ monstrously successful erotic romance novel of the same name, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s filmic adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey has at long last arrived and it’s just awful. Truly horrible. When college undergraduate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) agrees to cover for her sick friend and interview a young corporate executive, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), for the college newspaper, it quickly becomes apparent (through some of the clunkiest dialogue ever written) that Christian has taken a liking to her. The pair then begin to form a relationship and start dating. Quite soon into their time together, Christian asks Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding their relationship and eventually, asks her to also a sign a separate contract – a contract that binds her to be submissive to all manner of sexual experimentation or, as it turns out, to some light spanking. Yes, right of the bat the notorious BDSM exploits of the source novel are significantly tamed, and not only that, but they are surprisingly few and far between. Instead, the majority of the film is focused on human “drama,” or, more accurately, the majority of the film consists of Christian sitting by a piano acting like a moody six year old because he’s so dark and complicated.
One of the worst of many things about Fifty Shades of Grey is that there’s literally no sense of direction, or conflict. For all you know it could be five minutes or another three hours before those sweet credits mercifully role. Once Anastasia and Christian get together, the story, for all intents and purpose, disappears entirely and the film spends the rest of its run-time meandering into an empty void of nothingness, relentlessly veering off into a never ending succession of tedious car journeys and pointless jogging scenes.
The all important contract meanwhile doesn’t appear to be so much about sex, as it is about allowing Christian to be an emotionally manipulative and all round crap boyfriend. Some of the clauses include; “You must eat what food I tell you,” “you can’t roll your eyes at me or question my authority” and “I wont take you out on dates or anything like that.” He’s also permitted to stalk her incessantly (only to insist that she needs to stay away from him), and demand to know where she is at all times. And how is this behavior presented? As brooding and desirable. Anastasia meanwhile, being a poorly written and extraordinarily weak female character, seemingly incapable of functioning without a man, gives in to his sleazy advances because he buys her a nice car… Female empowerment!
There isn’t much nice to say about Fifty Shades of Grey at all, the only sliver of enjoyment to be had stems from how the first act seems to border on self parody, with dialogue so jaw droppingly bad that you can only assume that everyone is acting out some kind of joke. That is until about 40 minutes in and you then suddenly realize that it’s all too painfully sincere – at that point any sense of novelty quickly dissipates. The more the film begins to take itself seriously, the worse it gets.
The confusing decisions don’t stop there. Seemingly intent on baffling the viewer as much as humanly possible, the filmmakers decided that Danny Elfman of all people, was a good fit to compose the score. Which is actually something that audiences should be thankful for, because at least it distracts from the vapid garbage coming out of the character’s mouths, but only does because it’s so mystifyingly out of place, as if he’d sent in his next composition for Tim Burton by mistake.
The cast make the most of the material they’re given and it’s quite easy to imagine Johnson giving a charismatic and engaging performance if she’s ever given more to do that just bite her lip and stare longingly. As it is however, it’s impossible to become invested in any of the characters, which might sound like it’s not exactly the point, but when the film has been so obviously netured for an R-rating stateside, then the film has to rely on the characters more than ever.
Truthfully to complain much about the sexual politics or representations of gender in Fifty Shades would be dignifying the film as something worth talking about, which, perhaps most detrimentally of all, it absolutely is not. Regardless of your stance on the source material, or any preconceptions that you may have, the very worst thing about Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s so vanilla and bland that it’s not even worth getting angry over. Unfortunately it’s very hard not to.
Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson is distributed in UK cinemas by Universal, certificate 18.