Here we go again. Based on E.L. James’ trainwreck of an ‘erotic’ novel series, Fifty Shades Darker (2017, dir. James Foley) is the second of a trilogy, focusing on the relationship between two people which is characterised by a mixture of seemingly genuine affection and sexual sadism. Beginning at approximately the ending of the previous film, its synopsis is as follows:
Christian and Ana decide to rekindle their relationship, except this time there are no more rules or punishments. As they begin to get used to their newfound relationship, Christian’s past begins to haunt Ana as Christian struggles with his innermost thoughts. (source)
I have a bit of a funny past with this dumb series, because I worked at a bookshop when the books were initially released and did read them at the time because I felt obligated to, since they were insanely popular. To some, the series is a fun, sexy adventure with unconventional (yet poorly written) sex scenes that seem to appeal to (how can I put this sensitively) an older female demographic, who were definitely the biggest buyers at the time. But I have always felt that the series has really worrying under/overtones, which I explored in detail in my review of the first film. That didn’t stop me from watching the first film twice though, because I made my partner watch it as well to gauge his reaction. That also didn’t stop me from watching this second film in the trilogy. In a sense, this series is almost like driving down a freeway and witnessing a six-car pile-up. Even though it’s bad, you want to see if everyone survives at the end.
The interesting thing about Fifty Shades Darker is that, although the film is just as cringeworthy, and just as awkwardly directed and scripted as the first one, there are some positives which set it aside from the first film. Firstly, it seems as though Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey respectively, don’t hate themselves for playing these roles anymore. It’s difficult to describe, but in the first film, there was this palpable sense of self-loathing emanating from both of them, which seeped through the cinema screen and directly into your mind, making the experience even more awkward than it already was. Perhaps Johnson and Dornan have resigned to their fates and have decided to commit 100% to the series because they’re contractually obliged and may as well do so. Whatever is going on, the performances are certainly better than last time. Anastasia’s and Christian’s characters seem more fleshed out and more realistic, although this does mean that all the supporting characters get little development. However, let’s face it – people who go to see this film aren’t watching it for the character development. I digress.
Secondly, also like the first film, the cinematography by John Schwartzman can be quite nice. That’s about it.
The problem is, this is still a film (and a series) that takes itself incredibly seriously for being a glorified porn film whose ‘highlights’ are going to be summarised on a few choice websites in no time. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with films with sexual themes. But there’s a lot wrong with yet another film where a romantic relationship is characterised by a pathological imbalance of power, control, and the overstepping of boundaries. Also, we learn a little bit more about Christian Grey’s early childhood, which is characterised by abuse, and exposure to violence and substance misuse. Given that I work in the field of childhood trauma, I’m trying not to be too overzealous here, but it does seem that the film is drawing a line between Grey’s experiences of extreme adversity in childhood, and his later dominating sexual preferences and need for control over women. Which is quite a harmful assumption to make. But I don’t want to bore you with any more of that rant, because I could probably write a book about it.
Another problem with this film, apart from the above, is that it’s taking the idea of ‘going darker’ to a bit of an extreme. Whilst the first film was essentially about two sexual partners figuring out how they are going to have a relationship together and sign a contract in the process, this second one tries a bit too hard to create conflict once their relationship stabilises. In doing so, the film attempts to jam as much conflict as it can into its two-hour runtime, making the story progress in a manner that is clunky and awkward. Fifty Shades Darker contains conflict in the form of Ana meeting Christian’s much older ex-partner (played by Kim Basinger in her most wooden performance ever), Ana being stalked by Christian’s former submissive partner who has mental health issues, Christian has a helicopter crash at some point, and Ana is sexually harassed by her boss at work. It’s just too much stuff. As a viewer, you can feel the whole thing being constructed; add a bit of conflict here, add some more there, better put in another sex scene here. It’s quite tedious, and it becomes predictable, and you’re completely aware of it happening.
Yet again, this newest entrant to the Fifty Shades trilogy is pretty much just another vehicle for some sex scenes that are really awkward to watch, and the displaying of a relationship dynamic that is problematic at best. Actually, the film could just be described as ‘awkward’ overall – in its direction, script, some of the acting (although the leads have improved), general story progression, themes, views towards early childhood trauma, views towards equality in relationships… I could go on. I’ll probably watch the last one (due for release in 2018), because with terrible series’ like this (kind of like the Twilight films), I need closure to make sure it has gone away forever. But ultimately, this Fifty Shades isn’t darker, it’s more of the same. It’s also just not a good film.
Watch the trailer here.