Rated R for some strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language.
Running time: 125 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
I liked “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and I am not ashamed.
I realize this is not the most popular opinion. The film has plummeted to 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing. And I don’t care. I went to a screening with a girlfriend of mine — a fellow school mom who’d also read all three books — we had a drink beforehand and giggled the whole way through.
This is probably the best way to experience “Fifty Shades of Grey” — slightly under the influence and with a large group — making it all the better to surrender to the guilty pleasure of the escape. But from a perspective of evaluating the actual quality of the content, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film is a vast improvement over E.L.. James’ best-selling, page-turning source material. The first book (which I read for professional edification, I swear) was inane and repetitive, with an annoying interior monologue which reflected our heroine’s reactions to the outlandishly kinky situation into which she’d stumbled.
And yet I — and millions of other self-respecting, educated women — devoured it and couldn’t put it down. We had to find out what was going to happen next. We had to find out how far the innocent Anastasia Steele would go in this dark, sexual world.
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel has done yeoman’s work in stripping the text of all its adolescent idiocy (gone are Ana’s “inner goddess” and her exclamations of “Oh my!” and “Holy crap!”) but maintaining the lines, images and moments that the legions of fans would want to see. If there were a category for most-improved adaptation at the Oscars, Marcel would be the clear winner.
As an experience, though, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a visual feast. Taylor-Johnson made her name as an artist before shifting to directing feature films with 2009’s “Nowhere Boy.” Here, she’s teamed up with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey — a two-time Oscar nominee whose work ranges from “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina” to “The Avengers” and “Godzilla” — to create a look that’s sleek, glossy and sensual. Merely the sight of billionaire bad boy Christian Grey’s closet sent shivers. The film is edited fluidly (especially in the much-anticipated sex scenes) and production designed beautifully. Costume designer Mark Bridges — who frequently works with Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell — also deserves a special mention not only for recreating Christian’s crisp wardrobe but also for styling Anastasia in a way that vividly reflects her transition from a mousy college student to a young woman blossoming and finding her power.
So yes, “Fifty Shades of Grey” looks great. But you may have noticed that we haven’t talked about the actual plot. Or the relationship. Or the performances. As Anastasia, Dakota Johnson is a total find. She finds a spark and a spine that the character in the book woefully lacked, and she has terrific comic timing. (That’s something else about the film that makes it superior: It realizes this story is ridiculous in ways the book itself never could. It has an actual sense of humor.) Johnson facially resembles her father, Don Johnson, but she has a presence that’s reminiscent of her mother, Melanie Griffith; she has a similar sweetness and directness which are appealing. Johnson must reveal herself in more ways than one throughout the film and rises to the challenge every time. “Fifty Shades” will make her a star, and deservedly so.
And then there’s Jamie Dornan, who co-stars as the enigmatic and beguiling Christian Grey. At least, these are attributes he’s supposed to exude. He’s kind of a stiff (no pun intended). Sure, the former underwear model is handsome and muscular, and he’s really good at that thing where you reach back with one hand and pull your T-shirt over your head while flexing your abs at the same time. (He does this so many times, it could be a drinking game.) But he’s never as intimidating as he should be, despite Anastasia’s insistence that he is. Perhaps Dornan’s restraint is intentional; after all, the story is told through Ana’s eyes, and he’s supposed to be mysterious. But he’s also supposed to be impossibly sexy and irresistible, and that’s never the case — to the extent that the mind starts wandering to other actors who would have been a better fit. Charlie Hunnam originally was cast in the role, then changed his mind. (I always pictured a Matthew McConaughey type when I was reading the book — someone handsome and slick, but with a slightly dangerous vibe — but he’s too old. Christian is supposed to be 27.)
Yet Johnson and Dornan manage to create a decent and sometimes lively chemistry with each other — a topic which has inspired no shortage of gossip and speculation. This is especially true in the scenes in which they remain fully clothed, bantering and negotiating as they flirt, feel each other out and find some BDSM boundaries which are mutually acceptable.
A quick plot summary, for those who have been living under a rock: Anastasia Steele is a college senior who visits Christian Grey at his imposing Seattle office to interview him for the school paper on behalf of her sick roommate, Kate (Eloise Mumford). Christian is the enormously successful founder of some vague tech company who’s giving this year’s commencement address. He’s also a notoriously eligible bachelor. But when Ana staggers into his office and falls on her hands and knees, looking up at him nervously with her big, blue eyes, the secret dominant in him is instantly intrigued.
From there it’s a traditional, romantic tale of boy meets girl, boy seduces girl, boy makes girl sign a non-disclosure agreement, boy ties up, blindfolds and spanks girl. Boy also stalks girl, showing up uninvited when she’s out drinking with her friends or enjoying lunch in Florida with her mom . (She’s played by an underused Jennifer Ehle; Marcia Gay Harden similarly has little to do as Christian’s mother.) Christian famously “exercises control in all things, Miss Steele,” but the film definitely underplays the creepy, needy, power-mad elements of his personality — facets which were forged in his fucked-up childhood, which we’ll get to by book three.
But he also buys her a car! And takes her hang-gliding! And he provides the previously virginal Anastasia with unprecedented orgasms in the so-called Red Room of Pain. Much has been made of the perceived subversive, transgressive nature of Christian’s proclivities, but “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the rare, mainstream film that talks about sex — and the way people connect through sex — in refreshingly candid ways.
And it does end up being rather traditional in terms of the relationship dynamics that emerge. Christian and Ana meet each other halfway, but while she learns about the fun that can be had while blindfolded, he learns to open his eyes to the possibility of romance and even love. She’s the submissive in the equation, but she ultimately bends him to her will. And — spoiler alert! — by the third book, “Fifty Shades Freed,” there’s even marriage, a home and a baby. How shocking is that?