Film Review: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

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

Fifty Shades of Grey Berlin Film Festival

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.

  • Production: 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.
  • Crew: 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.
  • With: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden.