Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Hardin, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Callum Keith Rennie, Max Martini.
If you threw Pretty Woman, 9 1/2 Weeks and Secretary into a blender, you’d probably end up with something like Fifty Shades Of Grey, a phenomenally successful piece of chick lit and soft core porn based on the best selling novel by E L James.
There’s been plenty of hype about this film version, which tells of the relationship between handsome millionaire businessman Christian Grey (played here by Jamie Dornan, from tv series The Fall) and naive, virginal literature student Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Miami Vice star Don Johnson and Melanie Griffiths). The pair meet when she turns up to his lavishly appointed office suite to conduct an interview with the secretive millionaire for a student magazine. They flirt, and then Grey seems to be following her everywhere, hoping to seduce her into a relationship.
Lustful looks and romantic interludes between the pair though are complicated by Grey’s secret – he is a control freak who is into bondage and sadism, a world that she is unfamiliar with. He wants to have a relationship with Anastasia on his terms, but she is reluctant to cede complete control to him.
Grey seems obsessed with Anastasia, who is unlike any other woman he has known, and she is the first person to break through his carefully constructed barriers. Orphaned at a young age Grey is a damaged person, whose sexual needs have been shaped by his experiences as a youth, and he finds it hard to control his urges. Anastasia is unfamiliar with the world of B&D, but she seems willing to experiment a little to test her own boundaries and find out a little about this world.
Fifty Shades Of Grey is an emotional journey about two people from different backgrounds and experience trying to figure out what their relationship is all about. Much of the film is given over to discussions between the pair about how far each is willing to compromise in order to make their relationship work. There is a contract negotiated between the pair that outlines the limits of their relationship, and Anastasia firmly tells Christian what she is prepared to do and what she won’t do. But when Christian crosses the line she leaves him.
From all accounts, the original novel is badly written and almost unreadable. The task of adapting the book, which is the first in a trilogy, has fallen to screenwriter Kelly Marcel, (Saving Mr Banks), who was apparently hand chosen by James herself. The director is artist turned filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson, who gave us the stylish John Lennon biopic Nowhere Man. The pair have toned down many of the more explicit and controversial elements of the source material to make it more palatable for audiences.
The film’s producers have also tried to make the film less sexually explicit to ensure a lesser rating than an NC-17, which in the US is usually the kiss of death for a mainstream film as many cinema chains would refuse to screen it. That means that a lot of the more explicit sex has gone, making Fifty Shades Of Grey more lightweight romantic fiction. The material is quite restrained and tame, especially when compared to some of the erotic thrillers of the mid-90s. It’s a dull Mills And Boon-like romance with whips and chains. One wonders what a filmmaker like Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Showgirls, etc) or writer Joe Eszterhas would have made of this material in their heyday.
Surprisingly for a filmmaker with a background like Taylor-Johnson the film is also quite visually bland. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is largely comprised of a cold blue and grey palette, apart from those couple of scenes set inside Grey’s “red room”, his bondage dungeon.
And there is precious little chemistry between Johnson and Dornan, who don’t really click as a couple. Johnson manages to convey both the vulnerability and hidden strengths of her character. But Dornan, who played a serial killer in the gritty The Fall, seems almost bored here and seemingly sleepwalks his way through the role. He refused to do full frontal nudity here. In her biggest and most revealing performance to date Johnson bares more than just her soul, and has the more emotionally demanding and complex role.
I also couldn’t help but compare this to the recent Australian drama My Mistress, which explored an illicit B&D relationship between a curious and innocent schoolboy and a bondage mistress, which was very underwhelming and unconvincing. And while the plot here may be very thin, as least Fifty Shades Of Grey gives us some character development and attempts to explore this unfamiliar world of sadomasochistic relationships.
But the film ends on an unsatisfactory note, which is basically aimed at setting the scene and raising expectations for part two of the salacious trilogy. Having found this first instalment a little bland and dull I’m not that I am expecting much more from part two. And hopefully the producers do not follow the current trend with these popular franchises and break the final instalment into two parts.