A huge thanks to Mark Roulston for this review. I was just too tied-up to find the time…[Ed]
It’s impossible to sit down in the cinema for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey without carrying a certain level of expectation in with you, such is the footprint left on pop culture by novelist E.L. James’s controversial books. Like similarly popular or notorious adaptations the film is essentially reviewer-proof, however the talent both in front of and behind the camera – aside perhaps from the two leads who will be unfamiliar to many – suggests an effort to legitimise the trashy, oft-parodied source material.
Pity then that 50 Shades of Grey is so undeserving of all the fuss it’s generating; it’s neither the high-brow erotica that it wants to be nor the grimy and unpleasant potboiler that it should be, falling rather limply somewhere between. Perhaps unsure of just how far into depravity her adaptation can be pushed, Taylor-Johnson has crafted an inconsistent and lifeless drama held together with the flimsiest of plots, a work that even in it’s better moments functions as little more than Eyes Wide Shut for Dummies.
The story (for those who have been living in a cave for the past four years) concerns soon-to-graduate English major Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and her relationship with the enigmatic billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). When Ana is sent to interview Christian in place of her unwell roommate – the shocking contrivances betray the source’s fan-fiction roots early – the pair seem immediately infatuated with one another.
In Ana, Christian sees a blank slate, a virginal (literally) hobby-horse for him to enact his unseemly desires, and in return Ana sees in Christian…. I’m not sure exactly. It’s hard to get a read on a character’s motivations when she’s little more than a cardboard cutout in a cardigan. Before they can truly become involved however, Christian must do the right thing to protect Ana, and have her sign a detailed contract which means completely giving herself over to Christian’s abusive desires. It’s a ludicrous set-up involving two of the phoniest characters imaginable, and sadly the remaining 90 minutes of the film is nothing more than a will-she/won’t she argument over the signing of this absurd document.
Considering this film alongside something like Eyes Wide Shut, amazingly the central conceit isn’t actually a terrible idea. The shadowy sexual underbelly theme has been explored well before, but what separates the good (Eyes) from the awful (Shades) is the singular vision of a director putting precisely what they want on-screen. It’s ambitious to think a great such as Kubrick or Lynch might have had the faintest interest in touching James’s scandalous prose, but the point is that given the opportunity a true visual stylist might have been able to make something out of this, should the author have allowed them.
And that might be the problem – is James, intoxicated by her own self-importance yet untested in the field of filmmaking, the one holding the big-screen version of her work back? Rumours about the turbulent production of 50 Shades of Grey are hard to ignore, with both James and Taylor-Johnson freely admitting that they butted heads over the script on set. A good director with free rein could have used the adaptation to use Christian’s unacceptable treatment of women to say something meaningful, if incredibly uncomfortable, about sexual power dynamics, while similarly exposing James’s culpability in apparently condoning this vile man’s behaviour. That’s not to suggest Taylor-Johnson isn’t a fine director, but here it feels like she’s hobbled by this dreadful text full of inappropriate rom-com meet-cute garbage which she was unable to significantly deviate from.
There is a wider discussion to be had about what the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon says about relationships and gender politics in our time, but the film itself seems hardly worthy of comment. It’s not the career-ending monstrosity that those of us with a soft-spot for Schadenfreude wanted, but it’s by no means something people should waste their time on. In five years time someone will ask if anyone remembers all the fuss about some sex movie in 2015, but unless there’s another BDSM drama coming down the pipe this year, it’s likely that no-one will.
By Mark Roulston
Find Mark on Twitter @tinribs27 and read more of his excellent writing at his New Zealand cinema website, Cinema Aoteaoroa.
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Writer(s): Kelly Marcel (screenplay), E.L. James (novel)
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle
Runtime: 125 minutes
Release date(s): February 12 2015