Film Review: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Fifty Shades of Grey Berlin Film

Not exactly whip-smart, but this hotly anticipated bondage-porn romance is in many ways a significant improvement on E.L. James' novel.

If the problem with too many literary adaptations is a failure to capture the author’s voice, then that shortcoming turns out to be the single greatest virtue of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the hotly anticipated first film inspired by E.L. James’ bestselling assault on sexual mores, good taste and the English language. In telling the story of a shy young virgin and the broodingly handsome billionaire who invites her into his wonderful world of hanky-spanky, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have brought out a welcome element of cheeky, knowing humor that gradually recedes as the action plunges into darker, kinkier territory. Glossy, well cast, and a consistent hoot until it becomes a serious drag, this neo-“9½ Weeks” is above all a slick exercise in carefully brand-managed titillation — edgier than most grown-up studio fare, but otherwise a fairly mild provocation in this porn-saturated day and age.

Still, any movie that’s generated a Lego trailer parody, a 75-screen Imax rollout and countless sex-toy tie-ins is clearly filling a very special void in the zeitgeist, and with its built-in female fan base and off-the-charts curiosity factor, the Universal/Focus release looks set to flog the box office competition through Valentine’s Day and beyond.

The “Fifty Shades” trilogy may have first surfaced in 2009 as a work of “Twilight” fan fiction, but it quickly distinguished itself as its own hugely successful, thoroughly dubious pop-lit phenomenon (100 million copies sold and counting). A far cry from Stephenie Meyer’s pro-abstinence fantasy, James’ startlingly explicit story proved massively popular with women of all ages, ushering the taboo subject of bondage porn into the mom-friendly mainstream. And for all the deserved criticisms of Meyer’s prose style, she really had nothing on James in that department, as demonstrated by sentences like “Desire pools dark and deadly in my groin” and “The muscles inside the deepest, darkest part of me clench in the most delicious fashion.” Is it sadomasochistic longing or is it irritable bowel syndrome?

At any rate, it may partly explain why our heroine spends much of the movie looking not entirely in control of her lunch. A nervous, dark-haired English literature student at Washington State U., Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson) has been assigned to write a school newspaper article on Christian Grey, a 27-year-old business magnate and university benefactor who turns out to be not just obscenely wealthy and successful, but (as played by Jamie Dornan) impossibly good-looking to boot. Speaking with Ana in his glass-walled Seattle office, Christian fixes her with the iciest of come-hither stares, his cheekbones practically slicing through the narrative torpor. Ana, for her part, responds by looking quietly dazed with lust, distilling the rich and complicated subtext of James’ novel — oh my god, he’s so hot — into a single oh-my-god-he’s-so-hot expression.

Following their interview, Christian and Ana heighten their mutual attraction with a few not-so-chance encounters. He sends her some rare first editions (happily, not “The Iliad”), hits on her at the hardware store where she works, and eventually whisks her off to his apartment by private helicopter — at which point James’ contemporary Cinderella story begins to reveal its Angela Carter side. It’s not just that this American-psycho Prince Charming shuns conventional romance and conducts his relationships on a strictly transactional basis. As he notes early on, Christian is a man of “many physical pursuits,” which include piloting, stalking, topless piano playing, and recreational bondage: Specifically, he selects and grooms young women willing to be bound, gagged, clamped, lashed and probed for his pleasure and presumably their own. Imagine Bruce Wayne with a Red Room of Pain in lieu of a Batcave and you’re more than halfway there.

A self-described “dominant,” Christian invites the naive, sexually inexperienced Ana to be his latest “submissive,” and hands her a lengthy contract outlining the very specific requirements and boundaries of their relationship — “the only sort of relationship I have,” he declares, when she wonders why they can’t just stick to dinner and a movie. In slowly easing Ana and the viewer into Christian’s private realm of decadence and deviance, Taylor-Johnson and Marcel (who previously scripted that rather more tasteful dominant-submissive psychodrama, “Saving Mr. Banks”) reveal an unexpectedly deft and disarmingly irreverent touch, wisely grasping — more so, perhaps, than James and some of her more slap-happy readers — that a film set in the leathery world of BDSM fetishism might not be without a measure of comic potential.

Relying on the performances of two appealing, fresh-faced leads with little prior onscreen baggage, the filmmakers have turned their version of “Fifty Shades of Grey” into a sly tragicomedy of manners — Jane Austen with a riding crop, if you will, or perhaps Charlotte Bronte with a peacock feather — that extracts no shortage of laughs from the nervous tension between Ana’s romantic dream come true and the psychosexual nightmare raging just beneath the surface. By happily shedding the book’s 500 or so pages of numbingly repetitive inner monologue and adding the crucial perspective of the camera, the filmmakers have also made Ana a somewhat tougher, more skeptical heroine, played by Johnson with a very appealing combo of little-girl-lost naivete and gradually deepening assertiveness. One of the movie’s more amusingly tongue-in-cheek moments finds the two leads seated at opposite ends of a conference table, enacting perhaps the most eccentric contract negotiation scene since “A Night at the Opera.”

Naturally, Ana’s agonizing deferral of her decision — whether or not to become Mr. Grey’s personal sex slave — doesn’t keep them from sampling each other’s wares in the meantime, starting with a scene at roughly the 40-minute mark in which Christian divests her of that pesky virginity in a safe, handcuff-free environment, before slowly introducing her to the exquisite pleasures of pain. By the generally prudish standards of the mainstream, the bedroom action on display manages to be appreciably more explicit than the studio norm while steering clear of anything particularly objectionable.

Breasts and buttocks are lavished with matter-of-fact attention in d.p. Seamus McGarvey’s precisely framed widescreen compositions, while a trio of editors — including Oscar-winning veteran Anne V. Coates, whose many salient credits include “Unfaithful,” “Out of Sight” and “Striptease” — navigate smoothly between closeups and full-body shots, their every cut maintaining a careful visual partition around the actors’ modesty. (Unsurprisingly for a movie with this particular control/submit dynamic, the usual gender-based double standard prevails: plenty of Johnson, but only a fleeting glimpse of johnson.)

Before her 2009 feature debut with “Nowhere Boy,” Taylor-Johnson made an earlier foray into onscreen sexuality with the short film “Death Valley” (included in the little-seen 2006 art-porn omnibus “Destricted”), which consisted of a young man pleasuring himself in the desert for eight grindingly tedious minutes. “Fifty Shades of Grey” offers her a much livelier and vastly more commercial feature-length canvas to work on, though it also forces her to elide the more intimate particulars of Christian and Ana’s relationship, hemmed in by an R rating that, in a less craven world, should rightly have been an NC-17.

Obviously there are scenes from the book that were never going to pass muster here, most notoriously a sex act involving a feminine hygiene product that would have been right at home in Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 arthouse scandal, “In the Realm of the Senses”; certainly there’s nothing here to compare with the much more grim and unyielding portrait of female self-debasement in Lars von Trier’s recent “Nymphomaniac.” But to be fair, there’s also nothing here that could possibly rival a culture where hardcore bondage is just one more ho-hum niche in the great big pornucopia of the Internet — a culture that, among many consequences, has banished provocative, sexually mature cinema to the theatrical fringe.

In that respect, there’s something at once underwhelming and almost heartening about the sleek, professional softcore spectacle of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which substitutes a genteel visual shorthand for James’ hot-and-heavy descriptions, duly cushioned by the rhythmic thrusts and heaves of Danny Elfman’s score. (The soundtrack selections, including tracks by Ellie Goulding, Sia and Beyonce, establish an initially lovey-dovey mood that turns vaguely sinister as things progress.) The film is arguably much more graphically indulgent as a piece of real-estate porn, given the seductive grandeur of production designer David Wasco’s immaculate sets, shot against the wintry cityscape of Vancouver (ably standing in for the Pacific Northwest locations). And in a picture where clothing might well have been beside the point, Mark Bridges’ costumes offer precise delineations of character, from Christian’s custom-fit suits and gray neckties (not just a namesake wardrobe choice but a handy prop) to Ana’s increasingly relaxed and stylish dresses.

James’ novels were pilloried in some quarters for glorifying abusive relationships, and hailed in others for subverting bondage and role play with a striking vision of female empowerment. Whatever one’s interpretation, the story they tell is meant to be one of redemption, in which Ana proves herself to be the true dominant by luring the abused, damaged Christian out of his playroom and into the world of functional human relationships — one represented here by his adoptive mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and Ana’s sweet but distracted mother (Jennifer Ehle) and spirited best friend (Eloise Mumford), all glimmering beacons of sanity and emotional stability. Unfortunately, it’s a drama that can scarcely sustain one movie, let alone three, and as our heroine becomes ever more aware of just how dark Christian’s dark side is, “Fifty Shades of Grey” starts to lose its sense of humor and elicit the wrong kind of giggles — climaxing with a hilariously overblown S&M montage laden with so many slow-motion dissolves as to suggest that Ana wasn’t the only one wearing a blindfold during the assembly.

The final half-hour or so is punishing in more than just a literal sense, bringing us to a less-than-scintillating cliffhanger in the now de rigueur manner of book-based, fan-driven franchise fare. Dornan, a charismatic presence, largely nails (among other things) the combination of intense formality and playful lewdness that defines Christian Grey, but he proves rather less skilled at illuminating the complex inner life of a sexual deviant. “I exercise control in all things,” he notes early on — spoken like a man who doesn’t realize he’s still got two sequels to go.

Film Review: 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

Reviewed at RealD screening room, Beverly Hills, Feb. 6, 2015. (In Berlin Film Festival — Berlinale Special Gala.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 125 MIN.


A Universal release presented with Focus Features of a Michael De Luca production. Produced by De Luca, E.L. James, Dana Brunetti. Executive producers, Marcus Viscidi, Jeb Brody.


Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Screenplay, Kelly Marcel, based on the novel by E.L. James. Camera (color, widescreen, Arri Alexa digital), Seamus McGarvey; editors, Debra Neil-Fisher, Anne V. Coates, Lisa Gunning; music, Danny Elfman; music supervisor, Dana Sano; production designer, David Wasco; supervising art directors, Michael Diner, Tom Reta; art director, Laurel Bergman; set decorators, Sandy Wasco, Sandy Walker; set designers, C. Scott Baker, Patrick Dunn-Baker, Geoff Wallace; costume designer, Mark Bridges; sound (Dolby Digital), Mark Noda; supervising sound editors, Becky Sullivan, Kelly Oxford; sound designer, Karen Triest; re-recording mixers, Anna Behlmer, Terry Porter; special effects coordinator, Alex Burdett; stunt coordinators, Melissa R. Stubbs, Michael Hilow; casting, Francine Maisler.


Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I think the movies are good but in order to make them GREAT ! And more for women instead of men they coukd have showed less of the Anastasia and more of Christian (penis)

  2. really63 says:


    They say “The heart wants what the heart wants,” But as I’ve grown wiser I’ve learned that tragically “The mind takes what the heart deserves.” Are we all just broken?

    They did a great job capturing so many different emotions.

    Kelly Sutherland

  3. Kelly marie says:

    I only read half of the first book, but I have watched the movie twice already and I love it. It’s a romantic…..kinky……love story and I can’t wait to see the next film, an I hope it’s the same actors as they played there parts brilliantly…..😉

  4. John Shea says:

    A sexual deviant? Deviant from what?

  5. Loved this review. Not a fan of the movie. The writing was so poor, and the sex scenes just made me uncomfortable because I didn’t see the chemistry between Ana and Christian. I think Dakota Johnson did a good job though. At least as well as she could with such a bad movie!

  6. Jan says:

    Great review..with one exception. It is clear in the book #FSOG that Christian DOES NOT stalk and groom young women for his prediliction. He finds women who are open to BDSM, who are experienced, who know what they’re getting into. Sometimes “Mrs. Robinson” helps him. He makes this clear to Ana. She is the only inexperienced woman he has sought….he’s attracted to her and hopes that he can turn into his submissive because that’s the only way he knows… this point. The point of the first book is….will Ana submit.

  7. Kellie says:

    Is this a joke review? a C+ Cinescore? Yes, my girlfriends and I went but we laughed our way through this film–and the theater was laughing. Loudly. This may not have meant to be a comedy but people left feeling they took serious material and turned it into a farce. A terrible adaptation.

  8. jamesblames says:

    every year we get reviewers fawning praise over absolute rubbish……this is another example…..if you find merit in this crap then you dont have taste.

  9. ItsMe says:

    So does Variety get paid to write such a positive review. This one seems to go out of its way to find the positives. Most other reviews have placed the movie as being somewhere between terrible and mediocre. This is by far the most positive review that I have read, and it’s so far removed from the others it really makes me wonder why it’s that way.

    • timgray2013 says:

      You’re kidding, right? Haven’t you ever liked a film that none of your friends liked, or vice-versa? Tastes vary. It’s as simple as that.

  10. Tazuki Kurata says:

    I respect you opinions on this review, Justin Chang. Don’t pay attention to the craps other people say. Because of your review, I’ll go Fifty Shades of Grey as soon as it releases in my country.

  11. MissFaulkner says:

    Comparing it to Charlotte Bronte makes it sound like you’ve never read anything by Charlotte Bronte before. Jane Eyre would never have put up with this shit.
    Christian Grey, on the other hand, is eerily similar to Arthur Huntingdon from the Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. The only difference is that Anne’s main character, Helen, fights back and wins. :)

  12. BoDo says:

    After the movie ended I was completely stunned, as in my jaw dropped. The reason- I liked this movie, more than I thought I would, a great deal more. I really thought I would dislike it and find so many faults, much like the book. If you’re a fan of the Fifty Shades of Grey book, you will eat up this movie and love it, hungry for more. If you haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, you will enjoy the movie for what it is and will be anxious to see Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel, which was announced as moving forward. Fifty Shades of Grey was very entertaining, with many moments of humor and a romance that should appeal to both men and women. It’s a perfect date movie, including one for Valentine’s Day. Those who are looking for more spice in their movies, Fifty Shades of Grey is the movie to see. The love scenes are well choreographed and sexy. When the time comes for the BDSM scenes, they are extremely well done and very erotic.

  13. lulu says:

    I can’t stop laughing at this review. This guy actually wanted a porno film lol. Quite frankly I’m glad the sex is toned down. If I want to see a porn I’ll put one on.

    The reviewer writes as if they made Ana into this strong figure for the film and this is exactly how she is in the book. In the beginning of book two she really sets Christian straight after seeing what he’s capable of. Ana becomes a strong-willed woman in FSOG. Heck in the third book she’s telling Christian what to do to her lol.

    Clearly all you perverts wanted some kind of porn movie which FSOG isn’t about. It’s about this man who goes thru such tragedy in his life which leads him not to be close to anyone. He keeps his distance until he meets Ana who is the only person who can get close to him. This is a guy who was basically raped (even though he didn’t see it that way) and abused as a child so much he never sought love. He can’t even stand to be touched that’s why the bonding of hands is so important. It’s so no one can touch him and not for sexual gratification.

    The ignorance of this review is disgraceful. Stop treating this film like it’s a porno where you fast forward passed the story just to get to the sex.

    • liza9113 says:

      You deserve an award. I couldn’t have said better myself.

    • vp19 says:

      Yes, nothing says “romance” like BDSM, especially when a “hunky” man is involved. I’m sure millions of shopgirls and receptionists will go wild over this silliness while munching on their bon-bons.

      • Jude says:

        So is it ok for poor old Christian, who had a terrible abusive childhood to rape Ana then which he does near the beginning of FSOG? I’m not a pervert, and I don’t want a porno film, just don’t want to see a film about a highly abusive man manipulate a young inexperienced girl. Some romance

    • Jess says:

      Slow clap for you, I couldn’t have said it any better. God. you will love the film. If you haven’t watched it yet. (I’m lucky bc it was released in my country the same day it’s released in Berlin.) It’s sad but only a few people will understand this story no matter how hard we try to do so. And I am seriously glad that I’m not the only one who thinks this.

      • Jude says:

        He didn’t ‘nearly’ rape her, he did. This is what happened……Christian turns up uninvited. He proceeds to try to seduce Ana. Ana tells him that she doesn’t want sex and would rather talk. “‘No,’ I protest, kicking him off.” Hearing the woman he claims to care for saying a very definite “no” to sex, he replies with these words: “If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet, too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you. Keep quiet. Katherine is probably outside listening, right now.” He then proceeds to have sex with her, in spite of her trying to kick him away and saying “no.” That’s not rough sex, that’s rape. He twitters on about her using a ‘safe’ word, and I’d have thought ‘no’ was a fairly obvious one to be starting with.

      • Amy SP says:

        He didn’t nearly rape her. She liked it and wanted it. Some people get hot over rough sex.

    • Danna says:

      Well said!

  14. TONY says:

    TRASH. With bad reviews. BRILLIANT. The devils attempt failed.

  15. stefaroohS says:

    For a book with supposedly so much graphic sex I am surprised to see the film turn out so demure and dimple on the sex front. Another Hollywood hype that fails to live up to the material (even if that material is complete trite).

    They should have gotten a European director and studio on board here.

  16. nircea says:

    Tooo mach sex for me

  17. seriously did you even really read the book. the book isnt about the sex…it is about self hate and learning to move past child abuse and sexual abuse in a mans world. she wasnt “writing the article” when they met she just did the interview because her room mate couldn’t go. the room mate wrote the article. the sex is just a small portion of this story. seriously this review is laughable at best from someone who seriously was looking at just the sex part and not the story as a whole. i did find the british lingo a bit off putting but it is just words in british form. Deal and move on. the books are wonderful and e.l. james did a good job with telling the story. so it was a first writing attempt but she made more money off it then you will in a lifetime. id say pretty successful. people need to pull their heads out of the sand.

  18. Naseem Randhawa says:

    I found myself laughing more than once reading this review. Insightful, witty and appropriately justified review of the movie.

  19. Aaron Steckman says:

    Why is this fantasy romance not just a lifetime movie? I guess it could be well filmed but who cares? Its about nothing. Young innocent girl meets rich adventurous in bed man….and???? Really the only fantasy part is the money which makes the whole movie pretty weak in my opinion. But thats why its called an opinion I suppose. Btw this review doesnt exactly strike me as fresh. Most reviews seem to be saying “its not as bad as we thought”. Wow! Sounds like a magical evening out. Here’s my twenty bucks.

  20. Julienne says:

    Who cares if it’s not great acting…it’s a porno

  21. Alex says:

    This flick is going to get so-so or awful reviews…and will still be a big money maker. Critics are going to be pissed.

    • Julienne says:

      The critics are wrong more often than not. MOST critics are failed film makers

      • okay says:

        Just because it makes money doesn’t mean the critics are wrong. People can’t look away from a train wreck and it’s pretty well established that many people are going to be hate-watching. The critics are right; the movie is crap. That doesn’t mean it won’t make money…

  22. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I did run out to Target the other day for a new set of anal beads and they just didn’t seem to be as good as the anal beads in the book… I’m sure you guys know what I mean. After that experience I’m hesitant to try either the vibrating butt plugs or nipple clamps from the 50 Shades line. I am curious to know what other peoples experience has been?

  23. vp19 says:

    Has hugely popular (but aesthetically terrible) 1920s author Elinor Glyn (“Three Weeks”) been reincarnated as E.L. James? This sounds like a Clara Bow cinematic vehicle for 21st-century shopgirls, only with the addition of BDSM.

  24. Gilda says:

    You couldn’t pay me to watch this movie. EL James is an awful writer, truly shockingly bad, who just happened to write about something that appealed to sex starved women and gullible young teens. She basically stole Stephenie Meyers characters of Edward and Bella and write her fantasy, then changed the names later. She is no different from thousands of other amateur writers, except she had the luck to have the Twilight fandom to take advantage of. Most of them hate her now.

    • liza9113 says:

      In a way it’s also about the maturity level. I’m sorry but I bet you couldn’t even write a successful book. Even more successful than the ridiculous vampire series.

    • CS says:

      It’s giving the source material more dignity than it deserves to refer to the author Erika Mitchell by the pen name E L James; it’s just as appropriate to refer to her by her original pen name of Snowqueen’s Icedragon.

  25. Dunstan says:

    Justin Chang has outdone himself with this hilarious review.

  26. Lisa says:

    Why? Just Why? Ugh.

  27. Jim says:

    Good review.

  28. (Unsurprisingly for a movie with this particular control/submit dynamic, the usual gender-based double standard prevails: plenty of Johnson, but only a fleeting glimpse of johnson.)

    After all the literary bashing, you have this in your review? Opps…


    This british book is so unknown within THE REAL AMERICA, yet the brits were stupid enough to set this faux adult fiction junkbook within America. That was one of the first bad moves by this alien imported british nonmovie nonevent. Another is inflating its sales figures by 10000 percent, especially within the real America where it is unknown and unheard of. America obviously hasn’t been paying attention to it and America obviously isn’t about to start.

    • liza9113 says:

      Oh c’mon. AMERICA? Please! Your beautiful and perfect America is one infected place. We’re the number one place in the world with the highest STD ratings, that has nothing to do with book. I loved the books. Praise for E.L James.

    • Mallory K says:

      I wasn’t aware that the entire population of Britain wrote Fifty Shades of Grey.

    • Well then says:

      ‘America’ this, ‘America’ that; I think the entire thing wrong with this book is that it’s awfully written and yet had the luck to appeal to a lot of bored individuals who will literally consume anything if it’s got some kinky sex content. Might I remind you this IS essentially a fanfiction of Stephanie Meyer’s book – isn’t she American?

    • ted says:

      Everything about it is pretty hokey

  30. Hpz says:

    That first sentence is just priceless. Best. Reviewer. Ever. So funny :)

    • TV Watcher says:

      I agree. The first sentence is one of the best ones I’ve ever read in a film review, just outstanding. This really can stand as the Rotten Tomatoes summary, as it tells me all I need to know.

  31. Glenn C. says:

    Oh so many sex deprived married women will adore this! Their fantasies come true on a screen! But then they return to the reality of their own bedroom! Thus wishing to be back in the theatre!

  32. Joyce Tyler says:

    Love this review, Justin Chang.

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