As a movie judged on its own merits, 50 Shades of Grey is a fairly lackluster albeit nicely-shot erotic movie that suffers from an overwhelming lack of chemistry between the leads. The potential is there, and leading lady Dakota Johnson rises well above the material she’s been handed to work with, but overall it’s an exercise in slick mediocrity.
The lens of a literary adaptation is another story entirely, however. The movie does significantly better than the book, even if that’s only because the people who made it seem to have a basic understanding of how the world works. It streamlines a lot of the book’s excess and providing much needed context and character that’s painfully absent from the prose (Goodbye, Inner Goddess! So long, Subconscious! Au revoir, “Oh my.”!). Anastasia Steele herself is best served by this, and in the hands of Dakota Johnson as an actress, rises above her status as simpering and insipid moron into a naïve girl who develops her own agency in a plot where she ends up with more control.
One of the hardest things to accept in the book is that this woman is just putty in the sadomasochistic hands of her new beau, and Johnson never lets Anastasia become this. She’s intimidated and unsure, bewildered by Christian Grey’s obsession and control, but ultimately has a lot more say in how she fits into the relationship than her literary counterpart ever had. And more to the point, she’s a character with a personality.
The book’s Anastasia is a flaming nuclear ball of indecision and self-loathing who jarringly goes through fits of desire that are based almost entirely on the fact that Christian’s a hottie. The film’s Anastasia is a girl who has those same desires, but because Johnson gives her more of a backbone, and lets her fight back at Christian’s demands to varying degrees, you understand that she’s an active participant in the relationship. Tellingly, you actually understand that she gets something out of the sex which is completely absent in the book.
Jamie Dornan does his best, but the character is so bland there’s nowhere for him to go; he seems uncomfortable for most of the film. The supporting cast is largely wasted – Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden (both better than this film) phone in their two-scenes-each and the assorted friends and family of Christian and Anastasia are given so little to do in the film they barely make an impression.
And director Sam Taylor-Johnson does her best to class up the proceedings, and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography does a lot to convey the glamour of Christian’s life more than EL James’ “but he has tonnes of money” ever did.
Sadly though, this is a film that bears the mark of an interfering author all over it. Though they’re granted small concessions (Anastasia, a 21-year-old university graduate, now has a “broken computer”, not a life of never having used one) it’s clear (both in the film and from the many articles reporting on it) that EL James has curtailed a lot of change in the interests of protecting her “art” that work to the film’s detriment (it’s painful to hear that James stopped a change to the ending scene that would have really cemented Anastasia’s character in a defiant moment of awesomeness) and if anything, the film is too similar to the book to have ever really had a chance to stand on its own two feet (notwithstanding Dakota Johnson’s best efforts to rise above).
And like the book, this film is anything but erotic. Although the sex scenes are handled better in the film (even if purely by the removal of about 4000 of the book’s) the lack of chemistry between Dornan and Johnson means that it’s naked people on screen in soft lighting. Taylor-Johnson knows full well that the eroticism comes from the anticipation, and so the film focuses much more on the little moments of fingers on skin and moments of surprise than the book’ repeated depictions of basic insertions (which are about as sexy as those five words convey) but even with that change in attitude, the sex scenes fall flat purely because it seems very carefully orchestrated to match the sex-by-numbers guidebook, rather than coming from a place of passion.
The film’s best scene comes entirely from dialogue, with Anastasia and Christian negotiating his contract. He finishes up by telling her what he’d like to do to her right then and there, she probes him for more details and lets herself imagine it – and this works because it’s a moment where the characters aren’t sharing the same screen, but we get to see what they feel about each other based on their imaginations and impulses. There’s a lot more work being done with that than two attractive people being naked and fondling each other ever can.
And the book’s most troubling element in Christian Grey’s inadvertent status as an abusive man is largely absent in the film. The scene in the book where Christian thinks Anastasia is breaking up with him and then rapes her has none of those connotations in the film; it bothers to include Anastasia’s consent, it shows her participating and not just being a living sex-toy for Christian and it packs an even bigger punch that it then cuts to her in bed alone, and you get the sense of isolation she feels, whereas the book makes you think “oh good, he’s gone now”.
And while the film does have trace elements of the “Christian’s-difficult-life-led-to-BDSM” notion, it’s nowhere near as obnoxious as in the book. His dedication to wanting to control Anastasia becomes less a symptom of his trauma-induced-sexual-predilections as the book implies, and the film instead amps up the consternation on Anastasia’s part – why does he want to punish and hurt her if he loves her too? And although they leave it until the final moments of the film, this is essentially the central conflict of the film, not hundreds of pages of Anastasia’s subconscious making her feel ashamed of being a sexually active woman.
I would love to think that they secretly filmed another version without EL James interfering with the process, and that they’ll release that and we’ll see the good that could have come from a talented-but-stifled cast and crew. The film was never going to be great, but it could have been not-terrible, and even as it stands, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of the book, even if it won’t ever make your Inner Goddess do the salsa with merengue moves. See it for Dakota Johnson’s decent work if nothing else, or see it if you want proof that the same basic concepts can be semi-workable in the hands of anybody else but EL James.