‘I exercise control in all things’ says Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey early on in the big screen adaptation of E.L James’ notorious 50 Shades of Grey and one can’t help but think that perhaps director Sam Taylor Johnson wasn’t given the same liberty when it come to making this film.
It goes without saying that as a novel 50 Shades of Grey was trash of the highest order- its infamously criticised dialogue and it’s misogynistic themes somehow managed to win women the world over however and a big screen adaptation was inevitable.
Taking on such a notoriously bad source was always going to prove a difficult task but faith was restored when it was put in the hands of Sam Taylor Johnson and screen writing credits were given to Kelly Marcel. The pair of them, both women as well may I add both have solid resumes- Taylor Johnson’s last film was the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy whilst Marcel’s most recent credit was for Saving Mr Banks. Unfortunately E.L James was also given a degree of creative control and that, combined with studio interference has made what could have been an interesting study of sexuality into a vanilla, misogynistic stink pile.
The big talking point of 50 Shades is obviously the sex scenes. Horny middle aged women everywhere have swooned over Christian Grey and his mysterious red room since the novel’s first release and seeing this put on screen was obviously going to cause some serious excitement. Somehow however the film, despite its 18 rating manages to make a fist of it- taking an erotic premise and making it about as sexy as an episode of Emmerdale.
It’s quite the achievement that the sex scenes here manage to almost fail at being sex scenes. Sure we see a bit of whipping and a few pairs of handcuffs but the film tows the line so straight that any eroticism is removed before anyone even takes their socks off.
Part of the problem with that as well is the chemistry, or lack of between the two leads. Jamie Dornan takes on the role of Christian Grey whilst Dakota Johnson takes on Anastasia and despite their best efforts the two co-exist on screen about as well as a moth and a light bulb.
This isn’t their fault though, never let it be said that the two of them give bad performances because they don’t. Johnson really gives it her all as the dough eyed virginal Anastasia whilst Dornan is given very little to work with. The reason they have no chemistry is because the script, clearly burdened by the source material is absolutely horrendous. I don’t think Daniel Day Lewis could deliver lines like ‘I’m 50 Shades of fucked up’ and ‘I want to fuck you into next week’ with any sort of conviction so it was always going to be an uphill battle for the inexperienced Dornan.
The narrative of the film is low on romance but even lower on logic. There is no real explanation as to why Christian is rich, no scenes where we really see the relationship between the pair build and the only explanation we are given to Christian’s fetishes are lazy and cliched. This lack of drive makes a lot of the film seem awkward and bloated, exchanges between the pair seem slow and at times unintentionally hilarious. So when it comes to them getting down and dirty it just feels uncomfortable as opposed to sexy and the film feels afraid to ever actually push any boundaries.
As for the sexual politics of the piece, which have caused much controversy in recent weeks it goes without saying that the film is pretty degrading towards women. Many claim that Anastasia is a strong woman but she comes across as manipulative and money driven whilst Christian is nothing more than a two dimensional arrogant arsehole, who keeps offering Ana gifts so she will do what he wants.
The idea of a dominant and submissive has been seen before but often with a greater depth behind it. Here we are offered very little in the way of that with the film portraying the depth of a puddle at the best of times. Ana keeps teasing Christian, playing on his weaknesses so she can get more out of him whilst he just stalks her and hits her if she does anything wrong. Like the film itself the sexual politics are a mess and there is nothing to be taken away from it and very little character development other than the fact they both become increasingly less likable as the film plods on.
Some credit must be reserved here for cinematographer Seamus Mcgarvey- for all the films faults it looks lush and it is accompanied by a rather enjoyable soundtrack. On a technical level the film operates efficiently and you can’t help but feel that this wasn’t the film Johnson wanted to make.
Verdict: As the film comes to it rather abrupt end it becomes clear that Anastasia wasn’t the one with her hands tied here but rather director Sam Taylor Johnson. Whilst the film is well directed it pretty much fails on every other level and is about as stimulating as doing the laundry. The leads try their best but are equally as burdened by one of the most toe curling and cringey scripts in recent memory. Come back Edward and Bella, all is forgiven.