MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Muses Limp But Whips Smart


Film: Fifty Shades of Grey
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden

It would be wrong of me, as a male critic, to dictate what a whole gender looks for in a film by judging the worldwide success and huge following that Fifty Shades of Grey has garnered. Instead, I chose to judge the Sam Taylor-Johnson directed film as an adaptation, a project that partially stands on its own from the source material. Despite the turgid story that highlights an abusive relationship where one side errs to actions that can be only classified as encroaching and stalkerish, Fifty Shades of Grey is a well-directed and well-performed (despite Jamie Dornan) venture into a romance that shrugs off disgust with some sharp-tongued wit whilst stumbling through some light sadistic motions.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a senior literature student who is assigned to interview business magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her school newspaper. An immediate attraction rises up between the two people and soon enough, they are intimate. Christian has a dark past that restricts him from fully loving Anastasia. Despite a ton of reservations about his demands, Anastasia agrees to be with him on his own terms. Of course, his ‘specific’ needs continue to push her to the breaking point. The question here is: how far would you be willing to go for love and would you be okay with the personal changes you make in the process?

Everyone involved with this adaptation is immediately pitted at a disadvantage. You have a couple of camps of people who have different views on the source material, one of those camps being the people who love the story and embrace its faults. Then there’s the other group, the people eager to smear the film just based on the conception. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson seems totally okay to undertake this huge creative challenge that will define her early narrative feature career. Instead of going through every scene like it’s some dark and twisted fantasy for people interested, Johnson calls a spade a spade. I’m fairly sure she knows that the material being adapted is pulpy and does her best to take it all seriously. In the scenes that are meant to evoke mystery and intrigue, she films things like they are coming out of a thriller. In the other sequences meant to be sexy, they end up being exactly that.

The only slight to her realistic visual eye falls almost directly on the story she is tasked with adapting. Starting out as Twilight fan-fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey ran through the hands of women like wildfire. On a basic level, the story of Anastasia and Christian is torturous to sit through. We have a woman who is barely developed into a full character before being swept off in a helicopter to be wooed by Grey. And then we have Christian Grey himself, a man whose emotional and physical needs can only be described as needy, infantile, and downright abusive. The subplots and revelations that intertwine the main relationship narrative fail to drum up any interest. There’s a couple of quick tangents about Christian’s history as a masochist and Anastasia’s relationship with her mother (Jennifer Ehle), but these all act as dull and boring filler before the next form of copulation begins. Also, the kinky scenes that people will be flocking to see are watered down. After a few uninspired spankings, things move on.

Dakota Johnson seems to be on the same rhythmic wavelength as Sam Taylor-Johnson. She knows exactly what the story is trying to sell and she plays off every contrivance with a massive amount of charm. The fault that Anastasia is underdeveloped before the story gets rolling gets almost totally covered up by how Johnson plays everything off. Whether it is biting a pencil in an erotic manner, warding off sexual advances or laughing at her own naivety, Johnson as Anastasia astounds. When she needs to emote hurt or regret, she does to the point where it’s endearing. When Johnson needs to lash out emotionally in retaliation at something Christian has done, she does. Audience investment may rely totally on her.

Jamie Dornan as Grey, on the other hand, fails to do anything but replicate the stiff character he is hired to play. The whiny attitude of his character is not made any more bearable. When Dornan broods to showcase his six-pack abs and dead stare, you keep wondering why the hell his romantic counterpart is even interested in the man. Christian is a character who is a ‘businessman’ who doesn’t talk about his job nor does the story deem that that information may be pertinent to the plot. Just another example in why there’s no life beyond the tortured romance. Dornan doesn’t make the experience any more bearable unfortunately. Even when he gets into the specific details of his bondage fantasy, Dornan feigns excitement for stoicism.

After getting whipped over the rear with the banal story that Fifty Shades of Grey employs, you may walk out of the theater feeling as fatigued as Anastasia. If you are interested in a romance that provides more than a few self-deprecating laughs with a strong performance by a female lead and a strong visual style by its director, then Fifty Shades of Grey may be for you. In the meantime, I’ll be watching Fred Astaire musicals that emanate romance beautifully.


Review written by Sam Cohen (follow him on Twitter!)

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen is that guy you can't have a conversation with without bringing up Michael Mann. He is also incapable of separating himself from his teenage angst (looking at you, Yellowcard). Read on as he tries to formulate words about movies!
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