Nothing better than a film poster where a man is clearly about to beat the crap out of his girlfriend, but in a sexy way. Confounding lovers of good writing everywhere, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015, dir. Sam Taylor-Johnston) was a runaway literary success in 2011 and 2012. Written by E. L. James and initially masterminded as Twilight fanfiction, Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a mousy and awkward young college student who is tasked with the responsibility of interviewing the massively powerful young billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Anastasia, or Ana to her friends, fumbles through the interview but gains his interest, and what follows is a love story of sorts as Ana and Christian get to know one another better, and Ana gets to know Christian’s preferences in the bedroom. Christian is a man of “singular interests”, which includes inflicting pain on his romantic partners. Surprise!
I read all three of these stupid, stupid books back when I worked in a bookshop, when it was my responsibility to know the types of rubbish people were reading. Needless to say, I truly regretted wasting my time on them when I could have been reading other, better written, less abysmally awful works of fiction. It would be easy to say that watching the film was a similar experience, but in a way, there were some positives to be found in this. Don’t get me wrong – Fifty Shades of Grey is a terrible film (spoiler alert, it’s definitely terrible). But there are a couple of good things to come out of watching and reading this tripe.
Firstly, an awareness seems to have been raised in terms of domestic violence and the right and wrong ways to treat a significant other as a result of this film. The societal implications of a film where bashing a woman is sexy and attractive is actually really worrying and disgusting, and there has been a lot of amazing critique in the mass media lately saying just that. Getting the message out there is always a good thing. I’m not judging anyone who enjoys a consensual BDSM-style relationship or casual arrangement. But the boundaries of consent in this film are fuzzy at best, particularly towards the end, and that’s not right. It’s clear that Ana is engaging in Christian’s sexual interests in order to please him, rather than a genuine sense of personal enjoyment, which can not exactly be considered consent. Additionally, in a real world situation, this Christian Grey fellow would have been charged and arrested with stalking and harassment, but in E. L. James’ world he has money and helicopters and a killer set of abs, so he magically avoids police intervention. This seems to create a culture of “it’s okay because Christian is rich and hot”, which is one hundred per cent problematic. Every time Christian shows up uninvited and ‘surprises’ Ana, it’s not romantic, it’s creepy and sleazy. Watching the film, it just feels wrong. And it’s extremely problematic that, according to the world of the film, this is perceived as a really sexy and awesome thing to do. Um, no.
There have been so many amazing articles elaborating on the ideas in the above paragraph. As this is technically a film blog (technically), I’ll get back to the film. But you can’t really have a conversation or write a review on Fifty Shades of Grey without mentioning the fact that this is a film about a guy who likes to hurt women. This is a film where hurting and inflicting pain on a significant other without their express and enthusiastic consent is tolerated. Christian clearly subjects Ana to emotional abuse, stalking, intimidation, isolating her from friends and family, in addition to the sexual violence. The fact that this is packaged together in what is intended to be a romantic film is, for want of a better phrase, totally fucked up. But I digress.
Secondly, the cinematography is pretty great. The cinematography is by Seamus McGarvey who worked on another beautifully shot yet quite flawed film, Anna Karenina (2012), as well as Godzilla (2014), The Avengers (2012), and Atonement (2007). Every scene, even the awkwardly hilarious sex scenes, have a lot of atmosphere and are composed quite artfully. One scene where Ana and Christian are negotiating their contract is backlit with this amazing bright orange-red light, giving the scene an overall charged and dangerous feeling. It was very smart. And the music is good too. That’s pretty much it.
Actually, another positive element of the film was the performance by Dakota Johnson as Ana Steele. I was initially not a fan of the way she played Ana in the first two thirds of the film; a generalist portrayal of someone who is socially inept, meek, and awkward. But where her performance became more interesting was when the power differential between Christian and Ana began to flip. When Johnson was able to inject a bit of confidence and strength into the character, plus that amazing drunken phone call, she truly shone. People have been saying that Jamie Dornan’s performance fell flat, but I didn’t necessarily mind it. Pretty much all of his dialogue was ripped straight from the book, and Dornan looked like he hated every second of it, particularly when he was forced to say “Laters, baby” (cue the vomit). Even though Dakota Johnson’s performance was a highlight, Johnson and Dornan don’t actually have that much chemistry together. This is awkward as the story is all about the electric connection between two people, and that’s where it’s meant to derive most of its appeal.
The dialogue is terrible. As I’ve read the book, I recognised that the majority of the dialogue was taken straight from it. This is a case where the screenwriters should have known better. I’m naming and shaming Kelly Marcel, whose insipid collection of quotes from the book was arranged into some of the most painful, cringe-worthy dialogue that I’ve experienced in any film, ever. The stupid books were initially Twilight fanfiction before they were repurposed into the bestsellers they are today. A username called ‘Snowqueens Icedragon‘ wrote this story. That really should give the best indication of the quality of writing on display here.
As aforementioned, the sex scenes were awkwardly hilarious. I laughed out loud at least three times. You get to see a lot of Ana’s naked body, actually, pretty much all of it. There are a lot of butts. If anything, this film should be called Fifty Shades of Butts. People say that it’s disappointing that Ana is fully naked all the time and you don’t get to see Christian’s junk, but I noted one quick moment akin to Ben Affleck’s time to shine in Gone Girl (2014); a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that doesn’t exactly make up for the double standard, there will probably be screencaptures on the internet somewhere. It does feel quite worrying that a film that centres around hurting women for sexual pleasure with numerous concerns around consent, also involves gratuitous full frontal nudity of only the woman in the story. There is a clear disregard for equality and women’s personal agency here that cannot be ignored. Plus, there are classy ways to do nudity, and this is not classy. I wouldn’t say this is necessarily akin to pornography, but it certainly is quite graphic.
Then there’s the problem with the storytelling. The overall film is kind of boring. When you break it down, Fifty Shades of Grey is really about two people negotiating a contract and having sex a couple of times. It feels like the sex scenes have been so hyped up, not to mention that the book is full of them, to the point where you spend half the film waiting for them to occur and get over and done with. Other than the novelty of the sexual shenanigans and the typical romance novel-esque “normal girl meets outrageously handsome and rich man who somehow finds her attractive” storyline, there’s nothing new or interesting here, and it certainly isn’t conveyed in a way that contributes anything to the romance genre. However, for a two hour film, I did find that the time passed relatively quickly.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Fifty Shades of Grey is not a good film. It is a terrible film. There are some positives, but it cannot be denied that the spirit of the film is so problematic, and for the film to be additionally kind of boring and also contain some of the cheesiest and worst dialogue in recent times is completely unforgivable. I can’t even begin to discuss the connotations that traumatised children turn into people like Christian Grey regardless of the quality of the support networks that surround them, because I wouldn’t be able to stop writing/ranting about how wrong that is. Seeing this at the cinema was an interesting experience – I went with two friends and there were only two other couples in the cinema at the time. It was less awkward to see in the cinema than Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013). But still, not worth seeing. Please read up on the awesome feminist criticisms of the content instead.
Is it worth paying for a ticket?: No. Better use your safeword on this one.
Watch the trailer here (NSFW).
“laters baby” ewwwww! 😦
Best thing I’ve read about this movie is that Danny Elfman did the music but you made some really great points too and must admit I would watch it……with a group of friends. For a laff!
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention Danny Elfman. There’s this scene where she’s reading the contract and there is this jaunty Elfman music that was kind of hysterically inappropriate. So funny and dumb! Definitely see it with some friends after a glass of wine!
I think it’s worth watching with friends and a glass of wine definitely! 🙂
I NEED to see that inappropriate, jaunty scene haha, sounds hilarious and just the sort of thing I like!!! Haha!
The film is pretty bland, but it could have been so much worse! I enjoyed reading your lengthy write-up 🙂
Thank you! 😀 I think one way it could be worse is if it followed the narrative of the book, where there is the stupidest internal monologue I’ve ever read. It would have been pretty funny to see though!
Screw this movie! (Not literally) 🙂
Haha! Seriously though, all copies of this need to be burned!
I’ll pass. lol
Great idea! 😀
This movie sound terrible. So do the books. So does looking at dongs.
Seriously, it’s terrible, even the brief glimpse of dongs. Although I would be interested in reading your thoughts on its terribleness! #terriblesies
The sex was pretty hot. But that was it. Everything else was sadly dull. Good review.
Thanks Dan! 😀 I wouldn’t even say the sex was interesting, I just thought the whole thing was so awkward!
It sounds like this movie would be pretty interesting if it held Christian Grey in a negative light and focused on Ana’s slow submission into these acts, turning it into a character piece about domestic abuse. Yet 50 Shades of Grey holds it all in a positive light and kills the entire thing.
I am glad someone reviewed this. You’re the first I have seen and my curiosity was dying to know what it was actually like.
The weird and wrong thing is that there’s never any question (in the books or film) regarding his abusive behaviours – it completely fetishises his good looks and money and prowess in the bedroom to the point where it forgets that his actions are completely abusive, which is so problematic. Such a stupid film!
“Laters baby” was just so terrible I really almost vomited
Absolutely the worst. If someone said that to me I would break up with them on the spot.
Great review that sums up most of my feelings.
Watching it on screen (yes, I’ve read it too, imagine what we could’ve achieved with this collected wasted time) I was reminded that it’s not the sex that’s selling this, it’s fantasy – and that’s what’s enabling so many filmgoers to overlook the fact that the Christian/Anna relationship is imbalanced, violent and (from his side) controlling. His extreme wealth – and supposed good looks – are such an ‘attractive’ and forgiving proposition that allows emotional (and sexual) manipulation. The music-video qualities of Taylor-Woods’ film only seem to amplify it.
Thanks heaps! 😀 I totally agree – it’s the fantasy of having a rich hot guy shower one with money and sexual attention that sells it for so many women. Which is kind of worrying, when you consider the abusive and controlling behaviours that seem to be ignored. But it’s okay because he has a helicopter!! (Sarcasm.)
Hahahaha! 50 Shades of Butts! This awesome review sums up all of my feelings about this film.
Thanks Abbi! 🙂 I really do wish it was called Fifty Shades of Butts, that would be amazing.
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Excellently done. You know, I was thinking about the nudity issue. Obviously Johnson had no problem with doing full frontal, but Dornan refused. Or was it the case that they only wanted Johnson to get naked? Was it a certification issue? I’m genuinely curious about that now, and I think I’ll look into it further if I can, because it seems grossly unfair that the inequalities of Christian and Ana’s relationship should be shadowed on-screen through the expected graphic nudity of only the submissive female character.
Also, no tampons. 😉
Thanks V! 🙂 I’ve been doing some thinking about this as well and the more I think about it the more annoyed I feel. It does feel like a transference of the film’s ingrained inequalities and misogyny onto the physical representation of the film. I wonder if it was an assumption that she would have to be fully nude or whether there was even a choice. Such a weird coincidence, but a telling one, for sure.
I still wish the tampon scene had been included, I can only imagine the amazing gifs that could have been made!
I think it’s only right that you talk about the issues around the film as much as you talk about the film because it really is interesting that 50 Shades of Grey (inadvertently?) raised the topic of abuse as widely as it did. I haven’t seen it and I’m not sure I will, but it does sound kind of like a statement that Dornan didn’t have to get naked (I’ll be looking out for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene, though lol) while Johnson did. Great review, Anna!
Thanks heaps Elina! 😀 I really wonder if I had imagined that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it peen shot because at the time I turned to my friend who didn’t appear to have spotted it. At the same time I don’t want to Google search ‘Christian Grey penis’ so I suppose I’ll never know!
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I absolutely love this review. I have not read the books and I don’t think I will see the movie. Nothing about this lot appeals to me at all. I was confounded about the nudity thing because I know that this movie is aimed more at the ladies that went to watch it. Surely they wanted to see Mr Grey in all his glory and NOT Ana?
Now, back the the creepy abuse issue… it just isn’t right. I am so over how these creeps get portrayed as the men that women want and should aspire to be with. It just makes me sick. He sounds like a real freak who should be locked up, billions and all. I agree with Luke’s comment above, they could have done quite the interesting character study, but they don’t. They make it socially acceptable.
Thanks heaps Zoe! Definitely avoid this one, the hype is too huge for its actual quality and the way it indulges the problematic themes is so disappointing and aggravating. I think the nudity issue was so confusing as well, because there were so many moments where there were just straight up boobs on the cinema screen, and for a film marketed towards straight women it didn’t really add up. Just an overall terrible effort, both in terms of its execution and its undertones.
Whew! I see you had a lot to get out of your system! haha. I can’t believe you actually watched this, but then I can’t believe I actually read all three books. I’m not going to watch the movie, but I will admit that I’ve watched a few of Dakota and Jamie’s interviews and it’s kind of hilarious how awkward all of them are. This book/movie makes people really nervous!
Oh yeah, I definitely had to get some ranting out of my system here! I can’t believe I wasted my time on the books either, although I’m happy to now make it my mission to redirect people to better literature. The central concept is just so ‘scandalous’ that all the press and everything else associated with it is so awkward. I find the taboo nature of it funny but I’m also glad that people are discussing intimate partner violence on a broader scale. At least the film contributes something in that respect.
It just could not be worse… and some people call this film a masterpiece… seriously.
Really excellent review. I read the first chapter of the first book, out of sheer curiosity, but it was so INCREDIBLY badly written I happily left it there. I mean, truly abysmal writing. Actually painful. That’s before you even get to the subject matter, which as you very intelligently discussed, is extremely problematic.
On a lighter note, my friend had the idea to have an ironic 50 Shades evening with a bunch of girls where we each make a donation to a domestic violence charity, eat aphrodisiac foods, read out excerpts from ‘erotic fiction’ and watch the film, making sarcastic comments throughout.
Thanks so much Laura! 😀 And I love your idea for the 50 Shades party, such a good way to make something positive out of this big old pile of problematic garbage!
I think we’ll do it but only when we can watch it for free. I don’t want to contribute to its success by financially supporting it, and I don’t ant to encourage them!
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