Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic romance film adapted from E.L. James’ novel of the same name. In it, nervous lip-biter Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is subbed in to interview billionaire playboy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for a graduate school newspaper. During the interview, sparks fly (I’m using this phrase loosely) and they become romantically involved. But Mr. Grey is oddly distant and afraid of commitment. Ana soon finds out Grey’s secret: a hidden life of playing out a sexual domination fantasy. Virgin innocent Ana doesn’t know how to handle this news at first, but soon becomes wrapped up in the “taboo” world of BDSM, falling for Christian in the process.
From the title sequence, we are immediately flooded with exorbitantly sleek mise-en-scene, namely with shots of Christian’s wardrobe. We are also given beautiful landscape shots of the Seattle skyline. All the while, Annie Lennox singing “I Put a Spell On You” fills the scene with soulful body. This lush opening is enticing and inviting. It is only when characters begin to speak that problems arise.
The main task of criticizing this film is trying to figure out whether to blame the narrative or the acting for the failed execution. To say that the plot is lacking in substance is downplaying the sheer emptiness of this film. Act one, the buildup to the crazy sex that lies at the heart of this film’s subject matter, is supposed to pull us into the characters and make us actually want to see them become intimate. Instead, the lead characters are wholly one-note, and there is no effort made to draw the audience toward being emotionally invested in them.
The script itself is a haphazard mixture of innuendos in the first half of the film and totally unprovoked fits of emotional turmoil in the latter half. The dramatic irony in the first few scenes initially comes off sort of clever, as the film acknowledges that everyone in the audience knows where the pair’s relationship is ultimately headed. But even this gets painfully dull painfully fast.
As pitifully scripted as some of the lines in the film are, the deliveries of these lines by Dornan somehow manage to make the dialogue even more atrocious (e.g. “F**k the paperwork,” “I don’t make love. I f**k. Hard.,” and “I want to f**k you into next week.”). Dornan plays the character of Christian Grey coldly and stiffly, which is so far removed from the power and misplaced intimidation that the character warrants.
Johnson fares a bit better than Dornan, but, given a character that is doomed to one-dimensionality from the start, there is little room for her to show off any talent that she might have as an actress. Ana’s character development consists of initially being breathlessly taken by Christian’s confident dominance to randomly bursting into tears at his refusal to be emotionally close to her. It is an abhorrently male-dependent character that doesn’t have much of a place in today’s cinema. Nonetheless, Johnson is probably the best part about this movie on the acting front.
For a movie about BDSM, the sex is fairly safe. Even boring at times. It would be expected that these escalating scenes of domination would be titillating (or at least controversial), but there’s nothing substantive about them that evokes any sort of reaction. The scenes are filmed quite well, but that’s not enough on its own to provoke sensuality. By the second act it even seems procedural, where Christian is simply explaining what goes into the act of BDSM.
The third act of this film is nowhere near important. If you haven’t checked out by then, you won’t be presented with any strong new plot points. And, where there is no substantial build to anything in the first half of the film, there is also no distinct ending either. I guess they’re leaving it to the sequel to give the story an actual plot.
I thought that I would come into this review saying that you get exactly what you would expect from this movie. But, somehow, you get even less. The lack of plot, lack of character development, and lack of buildup to anything worthwhile leaves this film grossly underwhelming. Sure it gives off the sleek and sexy vibe that the trailers allude to, but that doesn’t transfer into anything sleek and sexy beyond the first act. The writing is tragically silly and the acting doesn’t make much of an attempt to remedy the situation. Johnson does her best, and her performance wasn’t awful. But Dornan can barely deliver a single line effectively, let alone portray the stoic figure of Christian Grey with anything more than stiff moodiness.
As always, thanks for reading! And happy Valentine’s Day everybody!
Have you seen Fifty Shades of Grey? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)