“I was reading Austen and Brontë and no one ever measured up to that,” says Anastasia Steele of her romantic history near the beginning of “Fifty Shades Darker.” Had she only been reading E.L. James, she might have been less disappointed in life — though in her first film outing, 2015’s slinky schlockbuster “Fifty Shades of Grey,” director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel also aspired to a higher standard. Smartly gutting James’s viscous purple prose for something more curt and witty, it was one of the great pleasant surprises in recent studio moviemaking. So it’s perhaps unfair to knock James Foley’s serviceable, lip-glossed sequel merely for delivering what might have reasonably been expected in the first place: an expensively scented two-hour soapdown, interspersed with some light erotic frisking, all administered very much with the original author’s sticky-fingered touch. Sure to make Grey at the Valentine’s Day box office, “Darker” does almost nothing to fulfil the promise of its title, but it’s still diverting, sleekly styled and just sexy enough to frighten a few frigid horses.
With a brusque farewell as the elevator doors clamped shut, ending a long, tortured romantic negotiation on the chilliest of notes, “Fifty Shades of Grey” pulled off what might have been one of the great modern Hollywood endings — if not for the assured knowledge that a sequel was coming down the pike to undo its decisive snap. The original novel, for all its stylistic ineptitude, likewise works better as a self-contained narrative than as a franchise-starter: Once shy Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), tested to her limits by the brand of possessive S&M wielded by Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), resolves that she’s better off as her own woman, continuing their romance entails doubling back on a lot of good character work.
But there’s money to be made and fans to be serviced, and so “Fifty Shades Darker” is here to — in the words of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” covered in Corinne Bailey Rae’s dulcet greige tones over the opening credits — take us back to the start. It’s been three weeks since Anastasia and Christian called off their arrangement (“relationship” is too lofty a term for its first iteration), and apparently much soul-searching, troubled sleeping and pensive pacing across marble floors has taken place in the interim. “I want you back,” he tells her bluntly, somewhat surprisingly not cuing an angsty The Weeknd cover of the Jackson 5 hit on the film’s trigger-happy pop soundtrack. Does she feel likewise, though? Despite the distraction of a dreamy new job as assistant to dreamier publishing house editor Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), she does — with the wan caveat that their reconciliation proceed with “no rules, no punishment and no more secrets.”
Needless to say, there wouldn’t be much of a movie left if he honored these stipulations and refitted the Red Room of Pain with some comfy ivory banquettes and a selection of Pottery Barn’s finest throw cushions. For all her earlier skittishness, it takes but one fancy dinner and some selfless cunnilingus for Anastasia to admit that she’s ready to return to the Grey side. It’s not long before he’s authoritatively popping vaginal beads inside her person, whisking her off to masked balls (not his own) and forbidding her to go on work trips with her smarmily dashing new boss because “he wants what’s mine.”
If the original film narrowly skated around their relationship’s misogynistic undertow by giving Anastasia a strong, searching, sometimes skeptical point of view, it’s far more difficult here to determine what she wants, or what her prior experience with Christian has made of her. Quite literally requesting to be spanked one minute, then aghast at his aggressively dominant tendencies the next, she essentially retraces her painful arc of discovery from the first film — only with selective flashes of amnesia regarding his cruellest impulses. There’s certainly something to be said here about the chronic compulsive behavior of masochists as well as sadists, but amid its luxurious montages of burrata-smooth flesh, industrial-strength lingerie and bruiseless manhandling, “Fifty Shades Darker” isn’t in the mood to say it.
It’s not just on screen, of course, that the new film has lost its predecessor’s feminine perspective, with Taylor-Johnson and Marcel both stepping down to make way for, respectively, accomplished B-movie veteran Foley and screenwriter Niall Leonard — otherwise known as Mr. E.L. James. Leonard permits his wife’s authorial voice to trickle more floridly through to the finished film than Marcel did: All the novels’ talk of inner goddesses is mercifully still kept at bay, but much of the dialogue here is pure Harlequinese, with Anastasia and Christian’s exchanges particularly missing the first film’s pert, playful zing. If Christian’s sister Mia (pop star Rita Ora, given a couple of scenes this time and mouthily seizing them) rightly observes that he’s “the man with everything but a sense of humor,” it would appear that Anastasia has turned under his influence.
In Leonard’s defense, he’s faithfully working with (even) lesser material than Marcel was. There’s little shape to “Darker’s” baggy retread of the leads’ push-pull seduction, despite a wealth of narrative corners: the aforementioned tension between Anastasia’s boyfriend and boss, some ominous stalking from one of Christian’s former submissives (Bella Heathcote), friction with the abusive sexual instructor of his youth (a fine, tart and sorely underworked Kim Basinger), not to mention a tossed-in helicopter crash that leaves even fewer visible marks than the lovers’ Red Room antics. For all this activity, Anastasia and Christian simply aren’t given that much to do — a climactic romantic act has be consecutively replayed in three different contexts, just so the characters can stretch their legs a bit.
And yet, for all its structural and psychological deficiencies, it’s hard not to enjoy “Fifty Shades Darker” on its own lusciously limited terms. Rebounding from the joylessly lurid genre fug of 2007’s misbegotten “Perfect Stranger,” Foley’s return to the big screen shows some of his velvety class as a trash stylist. He doesn’t approach the plentiful sex scenes, in particular, with quite as much crisp ingenuity as Taylor-Johnson did, but with cinematographer John Schwartzman slathering on the satin finish by the bucketful, they more than suffice as coffee-table titillation. If anything, the film is most seductive outside of either the bedroom or the Red Room, when it succumbs to the sheer lifestyle porn of overly art-directed Venetian parties and platinum Monique Lhuillier gowns. A sweepingly shot yachting sequence may be a shameless rehash of the first film’s vertiginous flying hijinks, but it’s irresistible all the same, scored as it is to the creamy pop perfection of Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik’s “I Don’t Want to Live Forever” — first cut among equals on a savvy background playlist that also includes Halsey, Ora and the ubiquitous Sia.
As for the stars, they grin and bear it as best they can, which is to stay they valiantly don’t grin much at all. So wonderful and resourceful in the first film, Johnson isn’t given even the raw material to make an equivalent impression this time round, but maintains a beguilingly responsive, curious screen presence even through Anastasia’s inscrutable shifts in consciousness. Dornan, sporting an extra coat of stubble and, impossibly, even further evidence of gym hours than before, has even less to work with, but accepts his aesthetic obligations with good grace.
We care not a lick for these beautiful people, nor for their future together, as teased in a glistening mini-trailer for next year’s “Fifty Shades Freed” halfway through the closing credits. Yet to find yourself rooting for their union purely because they’re both so damn hot is to realize that “Fifty Shades Darker” has worked its shallow magic on you. “I was being romantic and then you go and distract me with your kinky f—kery,” Anastasia chides Christian at one point — to which the audience can only conclude that, with all due respect to her dreams of Austen and Brontë, he’s got the better idea.