Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan
If you haven't heard of Fifty Shades, you've been living in a cave. What started as a fan-fiction series detailing sexual escapades between Stephenie Meyer's Twilight characters Bella & Edward quickly became much more. When the nature of the content began to make a stir, author E.L. James took her stories to her own website, ultimately releasing them as three books with original character names. Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed would go on to become international best sellers, creating a female-dominant fan base that would launch the series into obsession status. It wasn't long before a studio picked up the rights to the book, created a film, started a marketing blitz, and brought Fifty Shades to the screen for all to see. For better or worse, this story is now of part of American pop culture and has become a must-see, if only to understand just what everyone is talking about.
When Anastasia Steel meets Christian Grey, both their lives with change forever. Ana is a quiet, intelligent, reserved college student studying English Lit. at Washington State University - Vancouver. Christian is a young, powerful, successful businessman running his own corporation in Seattle. Filling in for a friend, Ana interviews Christian at his office, becoming instantly attracted to the handsome and dominant man. But she has no idea just how dominant he can be. As the two begin a friendship that ultimately turns into a relationship, Christian starts the process of taking complete control of Ana's life, from her car to her computer, how much she drinks to what she wears. And as Ana struggles to decide whether these changes are positive or negative, Christian proposes to take it many steps further. He wants Ana in his bedroom, his playroom, and in his life, but the price is bound to be high.
Let's begin with the book; I've not read it. After all, I'm not a middle-aged woman secretly yearning for a fantastic sexual escape. From the reviews I've read, the book is poorly written but exciting, a sexually explicit page-turner but not a great work of fiction. I'm sure some loved it and some hated it, but for this review I guess that doesn't matter. Regardless of its quality, Fifty Shades became a book series that was popular to the extreme, a story that became something more than mere books. And so it has a following ready to watch in on the big screen, with preconceived notions no doubt, but also with a fervor to see what they've read. As someone who hasn't read the original material, all I can go off of is the movie. And so, sitting there in the theatre with a clean slate, I was able to critique the film as a film, and I've got to say, I'm quite torn.
After about 20 minutes, I had two predictions: the film wasn't going to have as much sex as I expected and it was going to be better than I expected. After all, he couldn't tie her up all movie long, could he? And the movie couldn't be as awful as early reviews claimed it was, could it? As it turns out, both my predictions were mostly wrong. Let's start with the sex; there was a lot. The film quickly became soft-core porn, with multiple sex scenes, nudity from the female lead, foreplay galore, and bondage ranging from light (a tie) to moderate (leather cuffs). And it was partly due to the multitude of these scenes that the film went poorly. Not the sexuality of them, but the frequency of them; the movie became a repetitive attempt at something that might have worked once or twice but couldn't continue. The sex scenes, the breathy conversations, the angst of making choices, the Thomas Crown Affair displays of wealth; it all became redundant and overworked, an obvious attempt to fill space where the book hadn't left much original content.
And now, switching gears, let's talk about another controversial aspect of this film; the domination of women. It's going to be difficult to talk about this without throwing in a few spoilers, so read at your own risk, but I'll try to be circumspect. The popularity of this story is an oxymoron in itself, as its audience is almost completely female but its largest criticism is that it objectifies women. And not only that, it seems on the surface to promote abusive & controlling behavior by men, to glorify being told what to do and being punished for not following those instructions. You can say that this is all a fantasy, that women are enjoying the thought but aren't understanding the reality, and you'd be partly right, until you got to the end of the movie. Ultimately, and this might be a shocker, this is a story of feminism. Throughout the film, Ana is changing Christian, not the other way around. His attempts to control her are shown as exciting, but insane, and Ana revolts against them continuously, only giving in when it pleases her and forcing Christian to take her as a "normal" girlfriend. As his character is revealed as being completely fucked up (to use his own words), hers is revealed as being level-headed, healthy, and independent. In the end, without giving away what happens, Ana experiments with Christian's twisted desires but refuses to be changed. She becomes the dominant one, deciding which way the relationship will go. I don't mean that literally, that she's whipping him at the end of the movie or something; you'll just have to watch it to understand.
That's the great thing about this franchise; you have to watch it. Whether or not you really wanted to, whether or not you've read bad reviews, whether or not you leave the theatre shaking your head, you've just got to find out what's happening. Give all involved some credit for creating something so titillating that it became a phenomenon; that can't possibly be easy. And give Dakota Johnson some credit for baring it all, for taking on this difficult role, and for becoming a central figure in the debate around this film. Like I said earlier, I feel torn about this film. It's not wonderful, it has flaws, it's too repetitive, the acting isn't stellar, and with an R-rating everything you want to see can't be put on screen. But I doubt that the book was a very strong base to work off of, that it offered much in the way of depth, or that it did much to help this film other than to get people in the theatre. Should you see this movie? That's a tough call, because of the explicit nature, because of the controversial content, and because of the ridiculous hype. But, then again, maybe that's exactly why you should.