Film Review: ‘Fifty Shades Darker’

Fifty Shades Darker Trailer
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James Foley's follow-up to 2015's erotic schlockbuster lacks its predecessor's surprising, feminine sass, but succeeds on its most superficial terms.

“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.

Film Review: 'Fifty Shades Darker'

Reviewed at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Feb. 8, 2017. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 118 MIN.

Production

A Universal Pictures presentation of a Michael De Luca production in association with Perfect World Pictures. Produced by De Luca, E.L. James, Dana Brunetti, Marcus Viscidi.

Crew

Directed by James Foley. Screenplay, Niall Leonard, adapted from the novel by E.L. James. Camera (color, widescreen), John Schwartzman. Editor, Richard Francis-Bruce.

With

Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Victor Rasuk, Robinne Lee, Bruce Altman, Fay Masterson, Andrew Airlie.

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  1. Christle says:

    oh my gosh… so disappointed, i understand that the whole book could not be played out, but to turn it around like that… simply things missing and mixed up, very disappointed,
    think the only people who enjoyed to movie are those who did not read the book,
    really hoping “Fifty shades Freed” will be better.

  2. Lynn says:

    We need to remember books are never the same once brought to the screen. Accept it for entertainment . I don’t think this would be an easy movie to act in with a room full of people.

  3. Lynn says:

    I enjoyed the movie, you know itsagood girls night movie with Jamie Dornan

  4. bitter says:

    there’s no chemistry its so flat.I loved the book I wish they followed the book to the latter!!!!!!! just give shonda rymes the book she will work wonders

  5. Bill vanBolden says:

    This movie failed to follow the book. It had the chance to capture the chemistry of this couple that the book displayed so well, It was not necessary to do the sex scenes. I wanted the movie to follow the dialogue more. To follow what EL James wrote. The book crept up on me and drew me in. It’s a shame the movie failed to do this. I feel as if I wasted my money on this film. I saw the first one 5 times in the theaters.

  6. lucy says:

    The movie is just as bad as described in the article, maybe even worse but is also lots of fun to watch. So who cares.
    2 scenes of submission were really interesting, felt almost real. The first one of the former girl friend and the second of Grey.

  7. Allyn Sitjar says:

    I thought Dakota received some better directing – she did a lot less mugging and posing and started to craft a character arc. She is a beautiful young woman and she is beginning to build some acting chops, as well. Did anyone catch the homage to her mother Melanie Griffith’s line from “Working Girl.”
    It was directly taken from the movie when she has been promoted and her assistant asks her if she should call her Ms. Steele. Her response, “Um…I expect you to call me Ana. I don’t expect you to fetch me coffee unless you are getting some for yourself. And, as for all the rest of it, we will figure it out as we go along.” (please excuse any inaccuracies in the quote) It was sweet (from one of my favorite movies) and delivered just like her Mom (in one of her better roles).
    Having seen the entire seasons of “The Fall,” Jaimie Dornan seemed like he was holding back so as not to get the two characters confused. I still have hope for these two actors in these roles and I hope they are getting strong and specific directing for the final installment. Saw change for Ana, not so much for Christian. There’s still hope and it is visually beautiful.

  8. Nb says:

    I have read all three books and I lived the books. I saw the movie Fifty shades of Grey and I thought it ducked. But Fifty shades darker is even worse than the first movie. So far the directors, writers have done the books a Injustice and I wonder book 3 is going to look like I honestly don’t believe it’s going to be worth watching they don’t want to spend money on making these movies they shouldn’t this should get someone that really wants to invest into creating the scenes for these movies I mean the books are excellent rereading again and again this movie was like someone just a list put all these chapters into one two three lines and just summarize it. Example of Christians my mother gets into it with her friend I don’t know Miss Robinson have they have boards and yelling and slapping in and in this movie slap get up get up and she’s gone Anastasia is wrong probably into it right before for that hey they have a few words in Christian that’s it and then the movies over boring extremely Pride on the projects he takes on, I hated both the movies. As for Dakota Johnson she improved acting-wise as opposed to the first movie and as for Jamie up and definitely better I mean he was good in the first movie but evidently he worked out for the second one which was impressive impressive

  9. James says:

    I disagree with the synopsis, it is under rated for it strong sexuality with raunchy devices. A sadist, manipulative, womanizer that forces women into submission tries to win back an ex-girlfriend. Every ten minutes, except for a helicopter crash scene, there is a full pornographic long scene. It should be rated X for strong pornographic material. A boss, man, sexually harrasses female secretaries and the third one reports it. A terrible dawson’s creek and filthy porno combined. This is much worse than the fifty shades of gray though. It had physical abuse. Do not waste your money watching this film. Just turn on a online porno and you will have seen something without the terrible drawn out dateing and trashing strong porno sex several times throughout the movie. NEGATIVE FIVE STARS…..

  10. April says:

    I so disagree with you on your “dissection” of Fifty Shades Darker”. It is obvious you have not read the books, or you would never of made such judgements concerning this movie. First of all, unless you wanted to make these three books into a miniseries, then I do not see any way a movie being less than 2 hours dealing with all of this material. This movie was to be about Christian realizing he cannot live without Ana, but he is also trying to deal with his inner demons, his ability to be able to give up control. Then he has Elena and Leila to contend with as both are torturing Ana. He just wants to find happiness in whatever terms with Ana that is. So he knows he has to win her back.

  11. Allison says:

    I saw the movie, and reading that long winded review that i still dont know if it was positive or negative was almost as painful as watching the movie

  12. greg marotta says:

    You missed Dakota Johnson’s nod to her mom with a verbatim quote from “Working Girl” — a nice touch.

  13. Angela H says:

    They need to hire director (St. James) of the Showtime series Submission to do the last movie of this trilogy. The sex scenes and the sultriness really comes out and is very appealing to the viewer. These movies have not done this trilogy any justice and both films could have been less wooden had they worked on doing all the sex scenes more seductive. Nonetheless it will still make money but truly missed the mark in the sensuality and headiness of the BDSM lifestyle. Will cross fingers for last movie if it comes to fruition.

  14. Dakota Johnson never fails to prove that she is an even worse actress than her mother; something which requires a profound and mind boggling lack of talent.

    • irwinator1992 says:

      It doesn’t surprises me at all. Griffith and husband Don Johnson were among the worst actors in the entire film industry. And naturally, Dakota manages to suck, too. Bad acting runs in that family.

      • Nays says:

        If this is anything like the first movie, Dakota will be its only saving grace. She wasnt working with much but she made that character likeable, Jamie Dornan on the other hand may be a one hit wonder with The Fall.

  15. lulu says:

    Let me see….all male reviews so far basically says the movie sucks except this review notes something [reluctantly] positive.

    I would like to say, who cares what you think. This movie will be huge. This movie won’t suck as much as Avengers 2 or the Thor sequel or God forbid that horrid Huntsman which left out
    Snow White duh. Who didn’t see that coming lol.

    Cannot wait to see it. It looks amazing.

  16. After enjoying the first film I was really looking forward to this one. Other reviews bash Darker mercilessly but now I get the impression that it might be a weaker effort but still enjoyable to an open mind not offended by a peek behind a curtain they personally can’t handle.

  17. harry georgatos says:

    disposable guilty pleasure.

  18. Bobbi says:

    Hey Guy Lodge, I don’t know who you are buddy, but thank god you had your Thesaurus handy! Apparently, after two years, it appears that you’re saying that; Fifty Shades of Grey, the first adaptation of the trilogy, WASN’T that bad after all? You mean, NOW, after seeing Fifty Shades Darker, all of the negative comments and critics, all the nay sayers and literary snobs, might have been wrong about the first movie? Now isn’t THAT interesting? It’s obvious you’re not a fan, unlike the over 100 million people WORLDWIDE that are. It’s amusing how the people that know the least, have the most to say….oh, and by the way, after those elevator doors closed at the end of the first movie, their personal “arrangement” (your words), took place after about 5 days, NOT three weeks. Your “review” has plenty of discrepancies. Too bad your Thesaurus couldn’t help you get your facts right. The good news my friend, is that you didn’t quote, or use as a source, Celebrity Dirty Laundry, The BitBag, or Kenya West.

  19. Fangirl says:

    And you got paid for writing this mess… It almost looks like you haven’t even seen the movie. Or did you sleep through it? It’s funny you’re throwing the word “superficial” around while your entire “review”, if we can even call it a review, reeks of a very snobbish, superficial air. You got an F, try again after you did the homework.

  20. Theresa says:

    I believe that your aspirations to become a writer are premature, what are you talking about?

  21. Nanette says:

    “If Anastasia had read E.L. James she might have been less disappointed in life.” Hilarious! Pure Pygmalion. Too earthbound for Heaven and too wise for Stepford lives, spoon-fed expectations are a kind of limbo for the modern women longing to leap out of limbo into independent sexual conquest. As in Sense and Sensibility, it is a shame we are unable to stop apologizing for our appetite and piracy is still our only option. As for E.L.James, she will never be the half writer Anne Rice is because there is more filler than substance in her hot dinners. The movies illustrate plainly her vapid banquet. Thank you for writing this wry observation with a nod to what it might have been.

    • Guest says:

      I sincerely hope you don’t have delusions about being a better writer. You’re using big words and you still manage to be pointless and redundant. Ouch!

      • Theresa says:

        Yes, EL James is crying all the way to the bank because she’s not as good a writer as Ann Rice. I love Ann Rice and have read many of her books but have enjoyed none as much as the Fifty Shades trilogy.

  22. Mary S Morton says:

    Tell Guy Lodge that the first director of 50 Shades was Sam Taylor-Young………….NOT WOOD. Thanks

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