Since the first episodes of E.L. James’ (real name Erika Mitchell) story were released through an online publishing house in 2011, her “Fifty Shades” trilogy has grown into one of the biggest and fastest-selling book series in history. It has now sold more than 100 million copies in 52 languages. I am happy to say I had avoided the hype, although my wife told me this week that she had read the original book.
On the surface, Fifty Shades of Grey explores the burgeoning relationship between enigmatic 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey and sexually uninitiated college senior Anastasia Steele. But it turns away from the majority of popular love stories and romance fiction in dealing with the issue of limits, in particular sexual limits – setting them, respecting them and overstepping them. It is about the placement of trust and the adherence to a mutually agreed upon set of rules. Incidentally, Fifty Shades of Grey was followed up by Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, so we have at least two more films to anticipate (or not).
Author James still sees it as a simple love story between an inexperienced youngster, who is stronger than she knows, and a man damaged by a painful past. What I find interesting is that this seems to be an extension of the fascination that has surrounded the Marquis de Sade, the French aristocrat, politician, philosopher and writer, noted for his libertine sexuality. He is arguably best known for his erotic works, which combined philosophical discourse with pornography, depicting sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence. In the case of Fifty Shades, it is clearly the risqué nature of the sexual exploits, mixed with the love story, that draws in particularly women.
Stepping into the role of the cold and calculating billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey is Irishman Jamie Dornan (television’s Once Upon a Time). The curious college student Anastasia Steele is played Dakota Johnson (The Social Network, 21 Jump Street), daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren. Fifty Shades of Grey is directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy).
So, here’s my take on it: the start, in particular, has a real telemovie feel about it. Perhaps even “soapiesque”, a la The Bold and the Beautiful. Together with the music, I thought I must be reading a Mills and Boon novel while riding up and down an elevator. I think Dakota Johnson does a good job with the material with which she has to work – working her way from ingénue to controller. But, in some scenes she looks older than the character she is meant to be playing. As far as Dornan is concerned, he hardly sets the world on fire, but his character is meant to be largely emotionless.
Midway through I was bored and becoming more so. Some of the scenes seemed to go on interminably. I felt like yelling out “cut” or “enough”.
Then there’s the issue of sensuality and sexuality. For a supposedly sexually uninhibited film, it is remarkably restrained. Whenever a close-up shot moves down Johnson’s body, the moment it gets close to her nether regions it cuts away. While Dornan’s backside is revealed, that is as far as it goes. Clearly, the filmmakers exercised their own restraint (if you pardon the pun) and so for all its supposed sexual adventurism, Fifty Shades is a failure in that regard.
In any event, with its MA rating, it will be a massive crowd-pleaser.
Hey, Fifty Shades of Grey is far from the worst movie ever made, but it’s no prizewinner either. It scores a 6 out of 10.
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Cast: Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson
DVD & on-demand: 21 May 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television