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).