“Mr. Grey will see you now.” And boy, will he! The latest film from Sam Taylor-Johnson is Fifty Shades of Grey, the first movie based on the widely popular book series that started out as Twilight fan fiction but then turned into a best-selling, multi-million dollar franchise. And with the bells and whistles that come with a film franchise, Fifty Shades of Grey is surprisingly a character based franchise starter where its protagonists don’t have to save the world from an ungodly evil force. Instead, Fifty Shades of Grey is unsurprisingly well made (considering its filmmakers behind the scenes), albeit a bit timid in the bedroom.
Fifty Shades of Grey’s story is pretty simple, it follows Anastasia Steele (Yup, that’s her real name, but luckily, she goes by Ana instead), played wonderfully by Dakota Johnson, a “plain jane-type” college student on the verge of graduation. She interviews billionaire playboy Christian Grey, as a favor for her roommate, who writes for the school’s newspaper. Mr. Grey is about to give the commencement speech during Ms. Steele’s graduation ceremony because he just donated a hefty amount to the school. During the interview, Christian Grey not-so-subtly seduces Ana and she can’t stop thinking about him. The film then unfolds in a series of borderline creepy exchanges between Anastasia and Christian that result in sexual and emotional exploration.
Let’s get this out of the way. Fifty Shades of Grey is not as steamy and sexy as you’d like to think it is just based on the source material and marketing. It’s actually quite tame with a number of very softcore sex scenes. It feels like a very clean view of kinky sex, rather than actually being kinky or steamy itself. While the film conveys a sense of trashiness, it’s actually well-mannered and expertly put together with some slack. Fifty Shades of Grey is not as tight as the ropes or cable ties Mr. Grey uses on his sex partners.
Surprisingly, much of Fifty Shades of Grey deals with contract negotiations between Ana and Christian over the dos and don’ts of what goes on in the bedroom, or playroom, as it were. The movie asks the question, “What is a butt plug?” It’s that kind of naivety that sheds a light on the source material’s view of sex. I mean, just breakdown the words. It’s a butt plug, it’s a plug for your butt! It’s not like we’re talking about pegging or bukkake here.
Disappointingly, the movie is light on story. At its core, the movie is a character drama between a woman who is sexually inhibited and a man who is emotionally repressed. Ana and Christian’s love affair is not of the ages, but rather very dysfunctional and abusive. It’s almost a guide of how NOT to have a casual and sexual relationship. Christian wants a relationship that’s purely based on sex, while Anastasia wants to be in a “normal” romantic one.
Considering that the two people involved want different things from each other, it’s probably not a good sign that they should actually be together. Christian is very up front with what he wants, while pushing her away at the same time. While this approach can only fuck around with somebody’s head and emotions, it doesn’t serve for engaging storytelling or relationship building. In fact, the way Christian Grey is presented, it’s almost as if he’s a serial killer instead of playboy and ladies’ man. Ana actually calls him out on his creepy tendencies in a very funny exchange at her place of employment. Fifty Shades of Grey could easily be read as a sequel to American Psycho, but Sam Taylor-Johnson and Dakota Johnson (no relation) make the movie better than it should be. Furthermore, Ana’s character almost works as the audience surrogate, as she comments on the events of the film in the way we’re watching it.
While audiences will surely come to the theater with the promise of steamy sex and BDSM, they should leave with the name Dakota Johnson in their minds as well. Her performance is a revelation in Fifty Shades of Grey and is by far the best thing about the entire movie. Considering the character of Anastasia Steele is a cipher or blank slate, Dakota Johnson could’ve delivered a performance that was as nuanced as Kristen Stewart’s in the Twilight film series, but rather Johnson gives the character a sense of realism and pathos that elevates the entire movie. I’m really hoping to see good things for Dakota Johnson in the future, but for now her performance in Fifty Shades of Grey is something to take notice of.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Jamie Dornan who plays Christian Grey. He’s serviceable but doesn’t really convey the emotional depth I think the character should inhabit. It just seems that there’s nothing there except creepiness and brooding, which could be the problem with the source material, but Dornan certainly doesn’t do anything to heighten Mr. Grey and he doesn’t hurt it either.
Fifty Shades of Grey is not as trashy as it should be, while it’s also a well-made movie that elevates the source material. Sam Taylor-Johnson does a great job with the film’s direction, as she surrounds herself with top-notch talent with screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Bronson, Saving Mr. Banks), cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, The Avengers), film composer Danny Elfman (Batman, Alice in Wonderland), and, most importantly, Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele. While the film announces itself as “Fifty Shades of Fucked Up,” it’s actually closer to “Fifty Shades of Moderate Quality” instead.