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Fifty Shades of Grey | Review

Ties That Bind: Taylor-Johnson’s Erotic Adaptation Forgoes a Glimpse of Eros

Fifty Shades of Grey Poster

Playful marketing provocations, heralded by the succinct tagline “Curious?” standing out beneath black and white production stills, somehow manages to be the most titillating aspect of the highly anticipated film adaptation of E.L. James’ erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which, like many of its romantically inclined counterparts, only proves that watching people fuck or fall in love is generally only interesting to those involved directly. That’s, of course, discounting voyeurs and James’ core audience of straight-laced, sexually repressed hausfraus who have never taken an opportunity to explore base tendencies. It is their embrace that has resulted in this pop culture fixation. In a superficial sense, it’s enthralling to see that a studio production so clearly addresses notions of sexual pleasure, but fears of censorship have reigned in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s visual freedom, and considering the subject matter, this is shockingly conservative (not unlike, say, that Rihanna music video for her ‘S&M’ track that clearly has no idea what more alternative sexual tendencies look like). What’s more curious is how the film has been mostly positively received, with those who haven’t read the source material already having a garbled, telephone game grasp of expectation.

Though we’re all familiar with its basic premise, this is the first chapter in the sexually charged saga of one Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a collegiate Lit studies major, who meets billionaire playboy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) by chance. He’s attracted to her and draws her into his palatial Seattle home, where he draws up a contract that specifically outlines what the nature of their relationship will entail. The virginal Anastasia has a limited amount of time to research Grey’s specific sexual preferences and decide if she’s able to handle his potentially pleasurable lucrative offer.

Grey belongs to the lowest common denominator of pop culture phenomenology, with James’ texts receiving a similar critical reception as that of Stephenie Meyer. Much like Twilight will forever tarnish the resume of director Catherine Hardwicke, Grey lands with the same thud on another promising female director’s filmography. While Sam Taylor-Johnson’s marriage to younger actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson snagged more headlines than their work together on her 2009 film Nowhere Boy, it’s a far cry from the banality presented here, though there was no chance she’d be able to mutate Grey into her own vision. The end product takes itself so insanely serious that frequent audience titters cascading throughout its screening had nothing to do with discomfort toward potentially awkward material. Oh, the line from which the title is birthed is a stumpy bit of comedy, too.

As the titular billionaire, Dornan seems entirely too slight, his dialogue a series of forced utterances spoken with the prowess of a soap opera star. As Anastasia, Johnson, daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith (though thankfully she’s sans that peculiar kitten lilt owned by Griffith and grandmother Tippi Hedren), fares a bit better, and when she’s not sharing screen time with Dornan, she’s actually an engaging, intelligent presence. But once in the midst of her tryst with Grey, Johnson’s Anastasia becomes an irritating composite of girlish silliness, as if the script can’t find a way to avoid treating her demeaningly. Johnson plays her with a believable balance of naivety, at least as concerns a young person’s introduction to the torrid and tawdry practices of the sexually experienced, but the film becomes a maelstrom of repetitive silliness. Her dalliance with a man obviously looking for something different than what she has to offer marks her as another throwaway stereotype.

The scandalous S&M subject matter is treated without due deference, and you’ll cringe every time the words ‘dominant’ and ‘submissive’ are used, as it seems no one involved in the making of this had any way to make this sound less contrived. But it begins with lofty allusions to classic literature, and Grey’s red playroom even recalls a place of punishment for Jane Eyre. Not only is Bronte mentioned, but Anastasia is aligned with her favorite literary heroine, Tess of the D’Urbervilles from Thomas Hardy’s famed novel. The reference is troubling for those familiar with the text, which concerns a beautiful young ingénue caught romantically between two men, ending disastrously.

Professional, award winning actresses appear as their respective mothers, including Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Ehle, supposedly on hand simply to validate the film’s existence. Harden’s introduction is exquisitely laughable, arriving without warning at her son’s immaculate home, only to leave moments later with the same awkwardness one sees a matriarchal figure treated in something like Tommy Wisseau’s The Room. Elsewhere, budgetary constraints also seem to plague the exterior shots of Grey, with Seattle and Portland existing basically in skyline.

For anyone who isn’t the target audience, i.e., privileged (largely white, middle-aged) heterosexual women, Fifty Shades of Grey plays like Alternative Pleasure Practices 101. At the film’s dramatic crux, when Anastasia dares Christian to release his worst punishment, the result is a mere whimper of a sequence. Yes, it’s great to see sexually acknowledged adult subject matter on the big screen, but Grey, to use a demeaning term, is what rough trade would refer to as a cock tease, with the powers that be inexcusably pussyfooting by depending solely on the specter of titillation. If Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is equally shackled to contrivance due to centuries of puritanical methods of sexual representation, at least he wasn’t afraid to get his hands (and other parts) dirty.

Over a decade ago, we had the playful and laudable Secretary (2002), which understood that a degree of silliness goes a long way towards making an impact with taboo, sexual subject matter. Funny that no one seemed to understand in the making of Grey that watching two vaguely defined characters engage in ceaseless rounds of conservatively filmed grimaces and stifled moans (that lip biting bit is eye roll worthy) gets tiresome quickly. Decades earlier, Japanese auteur Nagisa Oshima gave us In the Realm of the Senses (1976), which is still effectively shocking. Perhaps those that gobbled up E.L. James’ prose wouldn’t mind reading a few subtitles and seek that out instead.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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