Congratulations, everyone. We are now officially living in a post-Fifty Shades world. It’s over. We made it.
Listen, the Fifty Shades trilogy has received its guff. We all know what the critical consensus is on these films. Why bother with yet another review of yet another film of this trilogy? Because, at the risk of losing any credibility I may have accrued as a critic, Fifty Shades Freed is the best of the trilogy.
Does that make it a good film? No. Is it a film with a better message than the other Fifty Shades movies? Not at all. But it has a plot. Is it a good plot? No. But it is a plot.
Fifty Shades Freed begins with the wedding of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastastia Steele (Dakota Johnson). While on their honeymoon, however, they are reminded of a threatening person from their past: Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). Then, for most of the runtime, they have no problems with Jack. Not until he kidnaps somebody in the final 20 minutes and makes this a crime thriller.
Let’s just cut right to it. Here’s what makes Fifty Shades Freed more competent than the other two films. They sideline Mr. Grey. Dornan is such a blank, abs-only personality in these movies that Johnson may as well be acting alongside a brick wall with a riding crop taped to it. For the first half of this movie, most of the workload is carried by Dakota Johnson, and she does an adequate job with abysmal material to work with. At least with her as the focus, the pacing works to the audience’s advantage.
From the midpoint on, what we get is a trainwreck buildup to a hurried climax into a self-aggrandizing flashback conclusion. But at least there are consistent, albeit toddler-level simplified, stakes moving the plot forward into this disastrous conclusion. Fifty Shades Darker had nothing in terms of plotting. About that film I wrote:
“The script and narrative pace … is useless. Time is never taken to set up character, or character motivation, or narrative intrigue, or mystery, or compelling…anything.”
While Fifty Shades Freed has a lot of useless things—tedious things, really, because at the end of the day this franchise is nothing more than a waste of time—it has more going on in its plot and characters than can be said about the previous films.
In Freed, time is taken to set up character. Steele wants to keep her name (because she wants to appear professional at her newly-promoted job which she achieved through nepotism…), she wants to have a stable marriage and eventually a family (with the psychologically broken man that gives a bad name to the BDSM community through the crooked lens of mass-marketed pop culture…), and she has grown as a character to a point where she can take control of her situation (why she couldn’t do that in the first place remains a question…)
There is also character motivation. Christian Grey wants what he thinks is best for his wife (it just so happens that what he thinks is best is smothering and controlling and toxic to their relationship…). Anastasia wants to fix Christian (look, I know these characters’ motivations are entirely f***ed up and not beneficial to any conversation about relationships or BDSM culture. But did you see Fifty Shades Darker? They had nothing going on in that. At least here they have some sort of drive as characters, even if those drives are entirely misinformed).
Narrative intrigue? Mystery? Compelling?! Well, feast your eyes on the craziest antagonist ever put to screen. Jack Hyde yields the best intentional hilarity of any film you will see this year. He is not a character that is required for the story to function properly, and without him the film would be a snooze-fest. You do that math.
While we are talking about humor, it behooves me to mention what many reviews will not. There is plenty of unintentional hilarity in Fifty Shades Freed. But there are two to three intentional jokes that I think land quite well. One involves the use of restraints. One involves the discussion of a particular dress.
So the narrative is soap operatic. Yes. It is insane and contrived and entirely dependent on the emotions of the audience to sell itself. But at least I can use the term “narrative” to describe this movie’s narrative. That is telling.
Visually, these films survive on their opulence, their lush and dreamy encapsulation of upper-crust lifestyle. That said, this movie is lit incredibly inconsistently. There are some scenes where high contrast lighting was just not the way to go, yet they went for it. For a film that is meant to be evocative and sensual to behold, it is hard to take in from a visual standpoint given this lighting scheme.
Strictly in comparison to the other films, Fifty Shades Freed is a masterpiece. In comparison with any other film, it is an insult. This trilogy fails to understand the subject matter that it is trying to convey. Perhaps this is a failure of the source material, but that does not provide the films any excuse. The films are a negative, limiting perspective on sexuality that pretends to be sexy but really is as vanilla and bland as any character in the trilogy.
Fifty Shades Freed: D
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)