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The media juggernaut that has centered itself around E.L. James’ 2011 debut novel had pretty much passed me by.  I was informed that it was a housewife-friendly book on bondage that started life as a Twilight fanfiction.  Having now viewed the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, I absolutely see that template and its intent to present a sexed-up version of the ultimately unerotic Edward and Bella.  Sadly, despite Fifty Shades of Grey’s rejiggering of Twilight’s star-crossed lovers formula - with sex! Kinky sex! – the story and its leads remains incredibly boring, and its alleged “romance” between a naïve college-age woman and her zillionaire suitor, deeply troubling.

English lit major, Anastasia Steele conducts an interview with dashing young entrepreneur, Christian Grey.  Ana leaps from intrigued to infatuated by the handsome and strangely intense Christian, whose pursuit of the girl includes late night helicopter rides and first edition Thomas Hardy novels.  Little does the inexperienced Ana realise that the relationship Christian has in mind isn’t necessarily hearts and flowers, but whips and chains and absolutely no dreams of white picket fences to be entertained, ever.  The only intimacy Christian craves is as a Dominant over a willing sexual Submissive and he’s picked Ana to be the perfect partner.  After an introduction to the world of bondage/dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism, all Ana must do is sign on the dotted line to become Christian’s slave and for the days of the week that he sees fit, he - and his cat o’ nine tails - are all hers.

Always looking for the silver lining, I had some hope for this project when it was announced that Sam Taylor-Johnson would direct.  As I adored her 2009 feature debut, Nowhere Boy; an artfully conceived biopic of John Lennon’s early days in Liverpool, I hoped she could surprise us with this tale of a young woman’s sexual discovery.

Would that it were actually anything about a young woman’s sexual discovery.  Yes, after having waited a long time (by modern western standards), Ana has sex.  However, one of the more disappointing aspects of the film is when you realise that all this folderol about the S&M has very little to do with what Ana likes or wants - outside of her desire to be Christian’s woman.  Everything is done to please Christian; everything is done Christian’s way.  Ana comes to him untouched, practically gift-wrapped with a cherry on top – or somewhere. “Where have you been?” Christian joyously exclaims at the admission of her virginity.  In that light, how can she know about having any other type of sex than what he exposes her to?  Even worse, it seems like she’s mostly enjoying it because it’s Christian having the sex with her, not because it’s an amazing physical experience.  I didn’t believe for a moment that Ana was having the greatest sex in the world, or even somewhat satisfactory relations; her bouncy energy the morning after their first experience together only convinces me the billionaire didn’t put things right.  Part of that might lie in the fact that in all the sex shoved in our faces, not once is the audience shown that Christian does his all to please Ana physically.  In this film, “going south” is just travelling to Georgia, nothing more.  Maybe his ineptitude is why Christian’s so stuck on the (marginally) kinkier stuff?  Which brings me to the “rough” sex itself.

While I don’t pretend to be Messalina in the court of Claudius, I have heard a dirty limerick now and again, and if anything, I was aghast at how incredibly boring the sex in this film was.  This is what set the literary world on fire?  Really?  It’s the most vanilla, un-edgy, uninteresting coitus in a movie based around sex that I’ve ever seen.  The introduction to Christian’s “playroom” – a red (naturally) bondage dungeon - was problematic, just a couple of soft flails, some well-padded manacles and a little standard rope use around the wrists and ankles.  Where’s the masks?  Where’s the ball gags?  Collars, anyone?  Harnesses, beads… Beuller?  Though they are mentioned in the sex contract negotiations (A scene that features Ana’s earnest inquiry, “What are butt plugs?” Sound it out, darling.), some of the most basic artifacts of any good Master’s gallery were nowhere to be seen, never mind that this guy is probably the wealthiest Dom in the world.  You’d think he would have Fifty Shades of everything, including some rare and risky Japanese articles.  But nope, as we'll discover from Christian’s monosyllabic introduction to the basics of bondage, this is a very elementary school primer of kink.

A huge MacGuffin of this story is “the contract,” the written agreement as to what each party will assent to, including punishment and rewards.  Whilst no monetary compensation is mentioned, that might’ve been less cringeworthy than Ana asking what she gets out of all this and Christian’s reply of “me.”  By mid-movie, we realise a hole in the head would be of better use to her than Christian Grey.  He grandly offers to “sweeten the deal” by deigning to give Ana one whole date night a week outside of their S&M-only weekends.  This is a huge deal, since dating, or standard courtship rituals that Ana or any other gal might expect, just isn’t Christian’s “thing,” and that’s the only thing that counts.  We also see the ever-so-important contract is just a silly (and repugnant) plot device, as they carry on anyway.  It’s obvious Ana is only considering it for the chance to be with Christian and not for any experience or sexual satisfaction of her own.  That possibility doesn’t exist, just like a sighting of the male lead’s penis.

As Anastasia, Dakota Johnson must’ve lived on Airborne for all the time she spent naked, while the sum total of Jamie Dornan’s exposure as Christian Grey are shots of his acceptable, yet listless buttocks, and a blink-and-you-miss-it frontal glimpse that’s less racy than a Calvin Klein underwear ad.

I know he was down a list of about a billion young actors who wisely ran in the other direction when offered this role, but Jamie Dornan does himself no favours playing much-fantasied Mr. Grey.  Maybe I’m just not hip to what makes a romantic lead these days, but past that first awkward meeting with Ana, this fellow had all the charisma and magnetism of oatmeal.  Maybe it was the silly, Mary Sue wish-fulfillment of making Christian Grey a 27-year-old gazillionaire, who knows how to fly planes, helicopters – I’m sure he could manage a zeppelin and a spaceship if he put his incredible mind to it - but I was absolutely unconvinced that Grey’s hollow shell of a personality could command a PTA meeting, much less a global corporation with his name on the building.   Along those lines, later in the film, Christian is suddenly called back to Seattle (Another Twilight-ism, placing the story in the Pacific Northwest) to deal with a business issue after creepily stalking Ana all the way to her mother’s Georgia home.  With all his money and access, why couldn’t he have just handled it remotely with these newfangled things called laptops?  The dialog around this is so clumsy and ill-fitting, that it’s clear the scene was added just to remind us that Christian is still a Captain of Industry and actually has a job that pays for the enormous amount of time he spends spanking Ana.  For a movie so consumed with sex, Dornan hasn’t got much of an “O” face, really.  Even in a moment that is meant to be climactic in every sense, he looks like he’s experiencing a bad smell.  Oddly and very distractingly, the cinematography - which is in other cases quite pretty - doesn’t do Dornan many favours; he has a very pronounced disparity in the size of his two eyes, with the right being noticeably larger than the left.  It does, however, give him a creepier look, which is maybe why it was emphasised, but I couldn’t stop noticing it.

Christian Grey, Christian Grey, all the money in the world can’t find you one decent therapist.  That is not to say that those who enjoy BDSM are undiagnosed sociopaths in need of serious help; which is more than this movie does.  Christian Grey is a sick, sick puppy.  Almost incidentally, Christian mentions that he was the four-year-old child of a crack whore when he was adopted by his current parents (Another tip to Twilight that none of the three Grey siblings look remotely alike.  One’s a completely different nationality.) and he only recalls terrible things about that time; a topic never again discussed, nor explored.  The other off-hand morsel that should throw the audience for a loop is the fact that Christian is a straight-up victim of sexual abuse:  He informs Ana that his initiation into the world of BDSM came at the age of fifteen, at the hands of one of his mother’s friends, and he remained this cretin’s submissive for six years.  Not only is this unseen woman not a convicted felon, but Christian continues his relationship with her as a confidant and adviser.  Imagine if this had been the confession of a female character having been statutorily raped repeatedly for years by an adult man?  This film would never have been made, much less catered to housewives, or the young female audience at my screening.  That vile, horrible revelation was the only truly shocking moment in the entire film.

Is there anything salvageable about this movie?  I did actually enjoy Dakota Johnson as our Ana in Very-Light-BDSM-Land (The “Eat Me” “Drink Me” reference was so very subtle).  I thought she’d acquitted herself as well as possible with this poorly-written heroine.  There were occasional moments where her wide blue eyes reminded me of her grandmother, the excellent Tippi Hedren (Herself no stranger to ladies coping with cinematic sexuality in 1964’s Marnie).  Hearkening back to the (many obvious) Twilight comparisons, her awkwardness, from the moment Ana stumbles into Christian Grey’s cold, sleek office, and her hilarious drunk-dialing episode, to her tentative acceptance of Christian’s terms, I was convinced Johnson would have nailed Bella Swan far more ably than Kristen Stewart’s vacuous, paper-thin portrayal.  Anastasia is a very much a more likeable version of the girl most likely to go vamp; an everywoman swept up by an omnipotent partner who can offer her temptations beyond her wildest dreams at the risk of her soul.  Edward, however didn’t need a written contract to be sure he’d be in the clear when he disposed of his whipping girl.

The soundtrack is easily the best thing about the film; moodier and more thrilling than any of the screen’s visuals.  It features Beyoncé’s Marilyn Manson-esque redux of her own Crazy In Love, and the eternally amazing Annie Lennox’s version of I Put a Spell On You. 

Another Twilight comparison was excellent actors in wasted efforts, like the luminous Jennifer Ehle as Anastasia’s flaky mother, and the excellent Marcia Gay Harden as Christian’s frothy, adorable mama.  I wondered if she was aware one of her friends raped her son?

I don’t believe this material could never have been made right, even under more experienced hands than Taylor-Johnson’s.  The film’s implications that manipulation equals romance, sexual liberation and satisfaction only goes one way, and mental and emotional problems are fixable with the love of the right woman, is repulsive.  As is using BDSM as a gimmick.  That we live in an age where something this misbegotten, boring and vanilla could even be considered risqué and titillating, or has created such gigantic media hype, is lamentable.  Perhaps if young ladies (and older ones) interested in that aspect of sexuality had a wider sense of reference to have read things like The Story of O, Venus in Furs, 120 Days of Sodom, or even Anne Rice’s (often unintentionally hilarious) erotica, or had viewed films like 9½ Weeks, or Secretary – both of which this movie leans upon heavily – no one would see fit to endure something as exploitative and condescending to its audience as this.

Whether it’s one or Fifty, these Shades of Grey are all dismal and dull.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

February 13th, 2015


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