Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Fifty Shades of Grey is an effectively erotic and self-amused film until its second half, when it falls into the much-talked about BDSM sex scenes that continue to titillate everyone’s imagination. It may come as a surprise, then, that director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s approach is reserved and mostly sensual in nature, with Seamus McGarvey’s impressive cinematography allowing for the kinky visual metaphors and color-drained imagery to soak up the Northwestern landscapes. As far as controversial romances go, Fifty Shades has held the attention of the masses for the past year, with everyone hyping it up as a shock-and-awe type love story that so decidedly goes against what we’ve seen before in cinema. Yet it’s all very rote and familiar, minus the handcuffs and whips. It’s not misogynistic, nor is it disgusting; rather, it treats the concept of explorative sexuality as a means of understanding someone and their upbringing. The film empowers Dakota Johnson’s Ana, even if Jamie Dornan’s Christian is a sadomasochistic nutcase with clear power issues and familial struggles. It’s just a traditional romance in the guise of something more exploratory.
The film opens with Anastasia Steele (not a porn star’s name, oddly enough, but Johnson’s virginal protagonist) heading into Grey Enterprises to interview the man behind the company. Her friend, Kate (Eloise Mumford), was supposed to interview him until she came down with a sickness; now, Ana gets ten minutes with the intimidating Christian (Dornan). Even if she feels threatened by his billionaire aggression, she is clearly attracted to him; when she walks out into the rain and becomes soaking wet, it’s clear that the visuals are telling us something far more self-revelatory. Christian won’t leave her mind but also won’t stop showing up in her life. He appears in the hardware store where she works when she’s not at school studying English literature and even shows up on her night out with Kate and friends. He simply won’t let her be, and that’s because he, too, is attracted to her. While most people would find these actions stalker-ish, Christian sees them as a normalcy because he’s used to using his power to get what he wants. Since Ana won’t give it to him, that complicates things.
Look, Fifty Shades of Grey serves its target audience very, very well. It appears to follow the book religiously (based on the girl next to me reacting giddily for most of the film), minus the complaints about misogyny, and gives its central character Ana plenty of amusing confusion surrounding her whole situation, including some unexpected humor. There’s not much chemistry, though, between the two leads because Dornan’s Grey is given so little charm. Johnson plays her role convincingly and showcases a virgin being sexually awakened in pretty much every way she can be; it’s like ordering a sampler on a restaurant’s appetizer menu, except your sampler includes physical pain and sexual arousal. Depending on your type of restaurant, that metaphor might connect with you. Taylor-Johnson’s film isn’t backed by a particularly strong script from Kelly Marcel, considering most of the dialogue focuses on characters like Christian talking in abstracts about their life. It’s frustrating, because there’s plenty underneath the surface when the film wants to explore those moments. They’re just few and far between.
The much-discussed sex scenes aren’t necessarily graphic, although there’s plenty of frontal nudity by women. Men, eh, not so much. I suppose that stems from the film being more concerned about commercial appeal, including Danny Elfman’s mostly inoffensive score being littered by pop staples like Ellie Goulding’s “Love You Like I Do,” which blares over a helicopter ride. Strangely enough, though, I found the film quite intelligent, more so than people will expect. While the romance is one-note and tiresome after the 125-minute running time due to a repetitive structure, there are some hilarious moments that stem from the main couple’s lingering attraction. One shot early on zooms in on a pencil that Ana is biting right when the word “Grey” appears for the camera. You don’t need to be a lit major to read into that metaphor. There’s also their first meet-cute in her hardware store where he’s buying what she deems “serial killer” items. I found it oddly off-putting, then, when the film grows self-serious in its conclusion in favor of overblown melodrama. As a Valentine’s Day romance, it fulfills many standards. Whether those standards are appropriate for romantic filmmaking is another story entirely.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)