Feb 12, 2015 Film & TV
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
Rating: 5/5 for the adaptation, 2/5 for the sex
The stroke of genius in Fiifty Shades of Grey is the way the leading lady giggles her way through the film. In many glorious close-ups, Dakota Johnson – playing Anastasia Steele, a virginal Portland student with a porn-worthy name – struggles to keep a straight face.
And how could she? Within days of meeting Christian Grey, Seattle’s most eligible bachelor, she’s seated at his boardroom table striking clauses about anal fisting from a BDSM contract; the very last thing this literature major-slash-hardware store assistant dreamed she’d be doing straight after graduation. The boardroom scene is one of the better moments in what, overall, is a pretty excellent adaptation of EL James’ shonkily-written bonkbuster.
But let’s go back to the beginning. A middle-aged television executive – known to her family as Erika Mitchell – spends furtive nights writing florid Twilight fan-fiction. Mining the same erotic vein as that series – a troubled outsider who thinks he can’t be loved, the plain yet headstrong virgin who tames his heart – her story creates orgasmic waves of excitement online. Next minute: a publishing deal, the top three spots on the New York Times bestseller list, the fastest selling paperback in UK publishing history, screeds of nutty tie-in merchandise, and an epic grapple for the film rights.
Side note: after reviewing the pleasantly filthy, increasingly bonkers trilogy for Metro (yes, there will be two more films), I left the books on a table at my local café with a note saying “Free to a naughty home”. They were gone within minutes; whisked away to the suburbs beneath a two year old in a pushchair.
Why is the Fifty Shades trilogy this wildly successful? Anyone who really thinks it’s about the bondage is peeking in the wrong drawer. Strip away the Cinderella story, unshackle the submission subplot and you’re left with a rather sweet tale of two young people trying to figure each other out.
Plus, apart from the kinky sex, EL James presses a mother lode of lady-buttons not often pushed in film. Anastasia has a great relationship with her parents, an onto-it flatmate, a working brain. Christian is constantly exhorting her to eat – how novel! – and is in the habit of blindfolding her and pouring chardonnay down her throat. No complaints here. He definitely comes off a bit creepy, doing stalkery things like swapping her lovely old VW Beetle for a hot red sports car and replacing her broken MacBook, but Anastasia’s currency is her consent: “No means no” in Fifty Shades of Grey and that means everything to a female audience.
It must have been a hell of a ride on the film set. James negotiated impressive sign-off rights over everything: script, costumes, locations, cast, whips, butt plugs, kitchen sink. She saw it as her job to protect the fans’ interests, and going by the ecstatic reactions in the full cinema every time Christian fingered his grey tie or Anastasia bit her lip, James did her followers proud. Whole lines of the original dialogue made it in.
So it’s a huge credit to auteur Sam Taylor-Johnson that the super-hyped sex flick transcends its source material. It’s gorgeous to look at and unexpectedly funny. The soundtrack is far better than Christian’s taste in the book promised (he had Coldplay and Britney Spears on his iPod). Dakota Johnson – the DNA-blessed daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith – is a natural comedian and a saucy broad, and Jamie Dornan does a passably hot job of playing what is essentially a cipher for her romantic fantasies.
Taylor-Johnson’s love of close-ups gives Dornan oodles of time to shift his face in ways that suggest Christian is having a learning experience. I like him, but I’d counsel against going straight from binge-watching The Fall to Fifty Shades of Grey, as I did. It’s hard to shake the associations between Christian Grey and Dornan’s Irish serial killer, and troubling that both characters developed their extreme sexual appetites because of twisted childhoods. Can’t a kinky inclination ever just be that?
I know, I know. What you really want to know: how’s the sex? Nicely choreographed, unsettlingly welt-free, pleasingly bush-friendly, generally pretty straight. In welcome contradiction to most hetero movie sex, Taylor-Johnson moves on once the hard fucking is underway and spares us the fake film orgasms, but it’s definitely on the shy side. The most thrilling moment doesn’t involve a penis or vagina at all: Christian lunges for Ana and eats her… toast. (Ladies, you feeling me?) That’s what erotica is all about, right? Anticipation, suggestion, seduction, teasing, a little light humiliation, a bite of toast. Pass the chardonnay.
One final note: complaints are rolling in about the first sex scene taking 40 minutes to – ahem – come. That’s just stupid. First of all, it’s not merely a sex scene; it’s Anastasia’s virginity. Have a little respect. Secondly, it arrives after a lot of negotiation between Christian and Ana. Wait, communication? About sex? Between two consenting adults? Before they get down to business? Shit, young people might get ideas.