'Fifty Shades Darker' Review: Love Is Still a Pain for Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson star as S&M lovers in the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades Darker, the second Fifty Shades novel by EL James

Early on in Fifty Shades Darker, the second installment in America’s most popular S&M movie franchise, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) presents an intriguing little erotic thingamabob — silver balls on a chain — to Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). She’s the guileless young woman he loves and, from time to time, instructs in unusual sexual practices.

Because Ana just looks at the balls blankly, as if wondering whether this might be something you tie around your cat’s neck, Christian quietly hints what he would like her to do with them.

“I’m not putting those in my butt,” Ana says.

Christian couldn’t be more amused if he were Henry Higgins catching out Eliza Doolittle at a grammatical faux pas.

He helps her sort things out — then whisks her off to the most wonderful fancy-dress party!

Fifty Shades Darker is possibly worse, and dumber, than 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey, or possibly not. Determining the degree of plus or minus here is pretty much the same as trying to define the point at which a dominant-submissive could be said to be really dominant or really submissive. You’re just jumping through hoops — spiked, leather hoops.

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In this sequel, Christian is trying very hard to stick to “vanilla” sex in order to win Ana back. Luckily for him, Ana isn’t much of a stickler: When she has the opportunity to spend a little more time in his private boudoir of pain, she explores the tiny, tidy drawers in which he keeps an assortment of aids to sexual pleasure. She clearly isn’t disappointed not to find cufflinks and tie-pins.

But both of them have to contend with toxic elements from his past: Ana is being stalked by Christian’s former lover, Leila (Bella Heathcote), whose demented, degraded passion for him has reduced her to looking and acting like Fantine from Les Misérables. And just about every time Ana turns around she comes face to face with Elena (Kim Basinger), the older woman who taught Christian the S&M ropes (so to speak) and thinks Ana’s not the right one for him. She’s a glamorous if perniciously meddlesome presence, someone who could easily be rotated into one of the Bravo Housewives shows. There’s also Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Ana’s new boss, who like Leila and Elena is revealed to be a borderline personality with no definable borders.

None of this is radically different from the EL James novel, and yet the movie has nothing of the author’s tone, which is strangely original and probably essential. James isn’t much of a stylist, but she underlines her pearled, soft-porn descriptions of the couple’s bedroom antics with an incongruous romantic winsomeness (“Has he missed me? Probably not like I’ve missed him. Has he found a new submissive?”). You’d think making a proper boyfriend of a sadist was a matter of tact, persistence and kindness — not all that much different from horse-whispering.

The movie, instead, relies almost wholly on the chemistry of Dornan and Johnson, except there is no such chemistry, not even when they’re naked and going at it with music that seems to be piped in from Grey’s Anatomy. It’s not just the lack of chemistry — it’s the lack of a sense of a relationship of power, a mastery of control by one partner balanced by the ceding of control by the other.

For example, the marriage of Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in The Crown.

Instead it’s boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-clamps-girl’s-ankles-into-a-contraption-and-flips-her- about-on-the-bed. Fifty Shades Darker is a sexually transgressive date movie, which doesn’t seem right.

Johnson is (as she was in the first one) probably as good as the material and direction allow. She occasionally gives her lines slender shades of comedy, more innocent than naughty. Dornan remains puzzling: How could he be the world’s most magnetic serial killer on The Fall, and yet so uncomfortable in the comparatively run-of-the-mill role of a wealthy sadist? In many moments he looks as if he wished he could just tiptoe away and let some other actor with a similarly flawless mouth, nose and brow step in. Henry Cavill, maybe.

Rated R, in theaters Friday.

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