'Fifty Shades of Grey' Review: Is the Erotic Drama a Bang or a Whimper?

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan get kinky onscreen in the highly anticipated movie adaptation of the hit literary saga

Photo: Universal Pictures

With its explicit promise of hot stars and kinky sex, I’m not sure why Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t in 3D, but let’s call that a missed opportunity. What the film gets spot-on is the essence of E.L. James’s wildly successful stab at Twilight fan fiction: the frisson of excitement when naïve college senior Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) embarks on an affair with wealthy CEO Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). It’s too bad the movie also imports James’s atrociously written prose and bizarre sexual politics, but then, no one buys a Fifty Shades ticket for the dialogue.

Things start well enough between Steele and Grey (don’t suppress the giggles – they’re built in). When her best friend, Kate (Eloise Mumford), comes down with the flu, Ana picks up Kate’s journalism assignment: interviewing the impossibly handsome, improbably young business wunderkind Christian Grey. Ana is attracted, but Christian can fairly be called obsessed, popping up at the hardware store where Ana works, and “rescuing” her from a boozy night out with friends.

Then Christian gets the hint he’s been waiting for when Ana reveals that her favorite author is none other than that hoary 19th-century sadist Thomas Hardy. Knowing that the bright (but bland) young thing reveres one of the most twisted men ever to put pen to paper actually delights Christian, because he has some secrets to share: He’s an abuse survivor, he’s the very definition of controlling, and he’d very much like to spank Ana in his “playroom.” Oh, it’s all fun and games until someone reveals himself to be a deeply damaged stalker.

The kicker is that, up until then, Fifty Shades truly is fun. Johnson has a great knack with comedy, salting silly lines with witty humor, and giving ridiculous moments just the right roll of the eyes. Dornan doesn’t have as much opportunity to play, given the taciturn Christian’s insistence on keeping the lines of his relationships impeccably tidy (he even has a contract for her to look over). But he’s certainly engaging. And then there’s Ana’s Cinderella wish fulfillment, as Christian buys her expensive gifts and whisks her around the Pacific Northwest in his helicopter. What’s not to dig?

Oh, and there’s sex. It’s a supreme relief to share that the stars do have chemistry, their fit bodies bending and twisting in a variety of pleasing ways. But – and this is strange to say about a film charged almost entirely with inserting tab A into slot B – there should be more nookie, and wilder. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has a frustrating habit of cutting some scenes early and truncating others, just when things are getting good. Worse, there’s no parity in the nudity. Johnson spends half the film topless, while Dornan only drops trou a few times. This is supposed to be a female fantasy, right?

Which brings me back to the film’s warped sexual politics. Fifty Shades is billed as a romance, but is instead the opening chapter of an emotionally abusive relationship (not unlike the Twilight saga on which it was based). The film suggests that all Christian needs is a good woman, when he could actually stand to hire a brilliant therapist, and take some time away from work to deal with his issues. Listen, the bondage lifestyle is a perfectly acceptable one for consenting, knowledgeable adults. But Ana is, for the most part, neither of those things. She’s a vapid, sweet virgin looking for love. He mainly just looks confused as to why she won’t let him beat her like a circus elephant.

But hey, why let a little disturbingly controlling behavior stop you? If you’re a fan of the book (and Lord knows, y’all are legion), then this flawed adaptation will sit just right. Johnson and Dornan are certainly better cast than, say, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson were for Twilight, and they’re absolutely watchable. If, though, you happen to notice an undercurrent of terror in Johnson and Dornan’s performances, a look on their faces that says “Holy nipple clamps, what have we gotten ourselves into?,” do try to be sympathetic. The mega-fame they’re in for comes with liberal doses of pleasure and pain.

Related Articles