When her roommate falls ill, virginal student Anastasia Steele (Johnson) steps in to interview billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan) for her student newspaper. The pair are instantly drawn to each other and begin a whirlwind affair of pleasure and pain in front of a series of ridiculously large windows.
Arriving with all the appendages of a modern blockbuster — a Beyoncé tie-in, a trailer YouTubed 193 million times, a LEGO parody — Fifty Shades Of Grey is one of those movies that the “internet” had condemned terrible, sight unseen. The truth is a little more mundane. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film of E. L. James’ Twilight fan fiction-turned-phenomenon is neither so terrible to be laughable nor so brilliant to be powerful. Instead, we get a sparky first third, a rote obsessive love story, anodyne kinkiness, contentious sexual politics, slivers of skilful filmmaking and a promising turn from Dakota Johnson.
The set-up is a simple one: bookish Anastasia Steele (Johnson) meets Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a business tycoon hiding a troubled past, a lust for BDSM (not the driving school) and a penchant for playing really miserable tunes on the piano. He lavishes his wealth on her (a first-edition Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, a snazzy red Audi) hoping she’ll sign a contract to become his “submissive”. She yearns for a more typical movie-and-a-Nando’s-type relationship but tests her ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ limits anyway.
For the first 45 minutes or so, Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel play this smart. Firstly, they strip away the book’s ropy language, all the “Holy mackerel!” this and “inner goddess” that. They also seem to pitch the action on two levels. The fans get their big moments — the first clinch in the lift, Grey’s catchphrase, “Laters, baby” — but sceptics can glean the sense that the filmmakers are wise to the ludicrousness of it all. From the slick-haired secretaries at Grey House to a business meeting where the agenda includes vaginal fisting and genital clamps, the tone is playful, even flirting with satire.
But eventually the fun starts to flag. As the emotions get more intense and we begin to learn the motivations underpinning Grey’s need for dominance (why can’t he just be a perv?), the film gets bogged down in repetitive, earnest romantic drama. There are dull family meetings, greenhouse confessions, even a gliding sequence, something not seen in a cinema since Pierce Brosnan’s heyday. The less sure-footed Taylor-Johnson’s movie gets, the more insistent Danny Elfman’s score becomes.
Even the naughtiness won’t keep you gripped. In James’ novel, there are 14 sex scenes that fetch up one flogging, two spankings, five tying-ups and 38 orgasms. The movie dials this back to four or five sexcapades. After a beautifully edited bed sesh, the antics in the infamous “red room of pain” are antiseptic, each visit more overblown and less sexy than the last. Peacock feathers, whips and the inventory at Tie Rack all get an outing but little of it displays any character insight or erotic edge.
Dornan looks the part but feels more befuddled than broken, failing to eat up the screen as you’d hope. Johnson, ironically, dominates. She gives Anastasia both a strength and sense of humour, be it taking the piss out of Grey (and the idea of the character) in a drunken phone call or busting little moves to Frank Sinatra’s Witchcraft. She gives Fifty Shades Of Grey more colour than it has any right to have.
Neither a camp laughing stock nor a shocking study of sexual obsession, Fifty Shades Of Grey starts well but fumbles in the dark. See it for Dakota Johnson. For the rest, find your safe word.