Fifty Shades of Grey, particularly the novel, has thrust itself into the unsuspecting mainstream culture, and despite its Grade 6 level prose, awkward dialogue, poorly described sex scenes, and chapters of nothing happening, it should be commended because it’s a book about women and sexual fantasies written by a woman. While E.L. James’ book may not be the first or most original work concerning sexual fantasies, 100 million copies sold proves that countless readers have fallen for this piece of writing, willingly opening up the conversation about sex. It is absolutely ludicrous that in the year 2015 society still frowns upon women having any type of pleasure from different kinds of sexual activity. Erotic fantasies can be had by women just as much as men. E.L. James’ novel has finally made discussions about such fantasies socially acceptable. There is no reason a woman should not be able to think and write about whatever erotic scenario she would like, and if that’s what E.L. James has been able to accomplish, then her success is well earned.
Having said that, the book not only frequently confuses the line between safe consensual sex and outright abuse, it fails to provide an adequate, realistic explanation as to why a smart, independent college student like Anastasia Steele would fall for a power hungry, controlling, manipulative creep like Christian Grey, and it goes limp when it should be exploring the psychology behind Christian’s need to perform dangerous sexual acts on women. Now I know that the majority of people who read the book were just interested in the sex scenes, but the novel pays a lot of attention to the story as if it matters. However, the story is underdeveloped crap and as a result the novel falls apart when explored separately from the sex.
Fifty Shades of Grey the film had a huge opportunity to correct the mistakes of the book. This particularly because the film was directed, written, and produced by three different women, a chance for these women to get a well-rounded female perspective on the subject matter and bring to life every sensual act from the page with unbidden ferocity. But this film, and I’m sorry to be so blunt, is utter dog shit. The only redeeming quality is actress Dakota Johnson, who gives an incredibly ambitious performance, but is consistently let down from the complete inept execution by everyone else involved in the making of this picture including her co-star, Jamie Dornan.
The story in both the book and the film is the same. College student Anastasia Steele (Johnson) helps her roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) by going to Seattle to interview young billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan). Upon meeting him, the two immediately fall for each other and start having sex. The problem is that she is a virgin and he has a Red Room of Pain, filled with whips, belts, cuffs, anal beads, and all sorts of pleasurable sex toys he has used on multiple women. He enjoys BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and masochism). “I don’t do relationships,” he tells Anastasia. Instead, he wants her to consent to be his submissive, or his play thing to beat, whip and fuck as he pleases, as long as she agrees to it by signing a contract. Anastasia enjoys the sex part but demands more of Christian. Christian can’t seem to resist her, and soon enough, he starts doing “boyfriend” things with her. Until they go one step too far.
Okay, so where does the film go absolutely wrong? Honestly, everywhere. The dialogue, the pacing, the acting, etc. But let’s focus on the sex scenes. They have been completely toned down. That tampon scene from the book – gone. The scenes with the beads – not included. There are barely any scenes that use belts or cuffs and they last maybe twenty seconds. You see a lot of Dakota’s breasts and backside but Dornan doesn’t even have a single male full frontal shot. In other words, Fifty Shades of Grey – a film all about exploring sexual behaviour – is terrified to go beyond the typical sex scene you would find in any other romance. Clearly the filmmakers cut everything out just to secure an R rating. They should have just said “fuck the rating” and gone all the way for the NC-17. This was a perfect opportunity to have a mainstream Hollywood film push the barriers, which no studio has done since Showgirls. While there is the fear that certain theatres would refuse to carry an NC-17 film, I can’t imagine any theatre would be stupid enough to refuse a film based off source material that has sold as many copies as there are people in Japan. That’s a lot of money they’d be turning down.
Not only are the sex scenes kept to a bare minimum, the scenes are laughably bad. There is no chemistry between the two leads, and the soundtrack is constantly playing a stupid R&B song to establish the mood. I am not kidding when I say the sex scenes are as awkward as the sex scenes from Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. The only advantage Fifty Shades of Grey has over The Room is that the actors are young and attractive. It’s a shame that even though E.L. James writes her sex scenes with as much excitement as a guy who only likes sex in the missionary position, she was more provocative than the film adaptation.
The sex scenes that have Christian tying Anastasia up or spanking her as her “punishment” are as confusing in their meaning as they are in the book. The biggest issue here is the extent to which Anastasia knows what she is consenting to. Christian presents her with a contract to go over what she will allow him to do and what she won’t, but she never signs it. In other words her silence signals to him that it’s okay for him to perform dangerous acts on her. Hmm….this doesn’t sound like informed consent to me. Kind of like a drunk girl who chooses to go home with some random guy – sure it’s her choice but to what extent is she mentally capable of making said choice? What makes it worse is that Anastasia seems to be capable of making her own decisions. She has a 4.0 GPA, a knack for wit, career plans, and she is able to say “no” to guys advancing on her. But every time she’s around Christian Grey she loses all capacity to reason. Just because Christian Grey says he wouldn’t hurt Anastasia, the book and the film advocate that it’s okay to blindly say yes to a guy who wants to beat you into submission. And to that I have two words to say to you E.L. James: Jian Ghomeshi. Google him. If Anastasia says yes without knowing what Christian is fully capable of doing, she is in no way safe. At least in the book, Anastasia admits that Christian is dangerous and at times is even afraid of what he’s capable of. But in the film, the acts that Christian performs on her are nothing short of taking advantage of her innocence and not knowing any better, which to me is straight forward abuse and borderline rape. Obviously we have all been in relationships where our hearts lead us to make mistakes, but Fifty Shades of Grey forces these mistakes onto the audience as if it’s supposed to be romance.
It’s also completely unclear what exactly Anastasia sees in Christian. Christian has absolutely no personality, and that’s not the fault of actor Jamie Dornan. He’s a one note character in the book and he’s a one note character in the film. I mean, I get that he’s the perfect guy; he’s rich and good looking, you know, the only two things that matter when looking for a partner. But that’s the extent to which we get to know Christian. And I would have bought the relationship if Anastasia just wanted Christian for sex, but she wants to change him. She frequently demands that he spend time with her doing “couply’’ things, that he open up to her about his past, and that he treat her like a girlfriend instead of a sex slave, when he told her straight up front that he doesn’t do romance. Christian also only seems to be attracted to experienced women who will submit to his demands. He just wants sex. So what about Anastasia appeals to him? She is a virgin, she wants a relationship, and she’s inexperienced sexually. Nothing makes sense as to why these two people would be attracted to one another. There isn’t a single scene in the film where Anastasia and Christian have an actual conversation. The spark is completely forced.
I get that this book is nothing more than the author’s own sexual fantasy. It originated as Twilight fan fiction, and I guess it must have appealed to enough Twilight fans looking for something raunchier yet familiar to get published. I’m also happy that a woman was able to publish her sexual fantasy and have it sold in bookstores. But that doesn’t make it good. In the end, Fifty Shades of Grey confuses rather than arouses. The film is boring, dangerous and completely senseless garbage with an anti-climactic ending to set the stage for two more sequels.
PS: I know you’re going to see this film regardless of what I say, so all I can say to you is that once you’ve wasted your money, check out two films that explore this exact same subject matter so much better: Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, which was made in 2002, and In the Realm of the Senses, a Japanese film from the 70s which is out on Criterion blu ray.
DIRECTOR: Sam Taylor-Johnson / WRITER: Kelly Marcel (Based on the Novel by E.L. James) / STARRING: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan / YEAR: 2015 / GENRE: Romance / COUNTRY: USA / RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes