D: Sam Taylor-Johnson. DP: Seamus McGarvey. W: Kelly Marcel. Starring: Dakota Johnson/Jamie Dornan/Jennifer Ehle/Eloise Mumford/Victor Rasuk/Luke Grimes/Marcia Gay Harden. (Based on E.L. James’ novel of the same name)
Where to begin? I guess with the beginning…
E.L. James’ self published e-book, Fifty Shades of Grey, exploded onto the internet in 2011. Written as fan-fiction for the Twilight series, in 2012 Vintage Books bought the rights and published the book along with the subsequent trilogy. Discussed as salacious and pornographic, among most circles it was deemed almost unreadable not for its content, but for its quality of writing. As one who found the actual Twilight books laborious, I chose to steer clear and frankly, wait for the film.
Saying this project was a challenging one is an understatement. To build a script that was faithful to its source material, yet would not get rated beyond the socially acceptable ‘R’ rating in the states was a feat. To build and market a commercial product that essentially sells BDSM sex to a wide audience is well, hard. In this way I think Focus Features and Universal have succeeded. Fifty Shades of Grey lifts characters and plot lines from Stephanie Meyers work to build a romance founded around the sex, generally speaking, that Edward and Bella essentially deny themselves until they are married. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) steps in to interview gorgeous entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her college newspaper when her roommate gets sick. Their “chance” meeting leads to insatiable desire in both of them. The rest is well, sex and all its accoutrements.
Kelly Marcel’s (Saving Mr. Banks) script is oftentimes cringe worthy. But can you blame her? Even the names of the leads are ridiculous and sound like they were stolen from mass market romance novels hidden down grocery store isles. Marcel at least keeps things simple, blending the Twilight rip-offs well enough that you succumb to them. Removing a lot of the more scandalous scenes from the novel gives greater weight to the sex that is included on screen (honestly I wonder how much of the sex scenes Marcel wrote or how much was worked out when Taylor-Johnson came on board). However, the best scene is one where Johnson’s Anastasia finally has a little bit of say in her submissive contract with Dornan’s Mr. Grey. She even gets to up her wardrobe!
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who previously worked with Taylor-Johnson on her 2009 film Nowhere Boy, attempts to build a beautiful space. But a lot of that credit could be given to production designer David Wasco. McGarvey does give the rain soaked world a sleek quality that invokes a cold expensive beauty that echos the concept of Mr. Grey’s appeal. There are quite a few shots that would have been excellent still photos, maybe director Sam Taylor-Johnson would have been better off making a photo exhibition considering her background in photography? Just a thought. Danny Elfman’s score is hypnotic at best and generally low key. It is overshadowed by the keen marketing idea of integrating nearly every soundtrack song into a scene. Beyoncé got her oar in on this one.
A lot of what doesn’t work in Fifty Shades of Grey probably didn’t work in the books. However, to be fair, the passage of time in the film is far too quick. So Johnson’s loss of virginity (complete with white panties) to BDSM happens shockingly fast and her integration into Grey’s life seems laughably up then down. Sadly the actors chemistry is so limiting, at times they even feel like they want to take one large step away from each other. The scene I previously mentioned is a great release as it actually contains chemistry. The couple are vacant vessels for the sex and are surrounded by such marginalized supporting characters. Dornan is best described as Patrick Bateman light, especially has Mr. Grey’s back story is only given in drips and drabs.
It is a great thing to see a female director be given such a large scale project, but this also makes the film quite troubling. Regardless of its supposed inaccuracies about BDSM, which I cannot speak to, the lack of spark or character development in Anastasia is severely problematic. Ultimately, one walks away from Fifty Shades of Grey feeling like you saw a really expensive hollow lead up to a whipping scene and an abrupt ending that just doesn’t ring true. And where does that leave you?