Fifty Shades of Grey ✮✮
A Ticklish Affair
by Glenn Lovell
Our expectations for “50 Shades of Grey” were so low ‒ OK, damn near nonexistent ‒ that the screen adaptation of the first book in E.L. James’s S&M trilogy couldn’t help but exceed most preconceived notions.
Sure, the thing is full of howlingly idiotic exchanges and the kind of plotting that would strike even Jackie Collins as contrived, and the performances hover somewhere between senior-class play and community theater level; but on the plus side this soft-core de Sade tutorial looks and sounds almost classy. We have veteran editor Anne V. Coates (“Lawrence of Arabia”), cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement,” “High Fidelity”) and composer Danny Elfman (“Edward Scissorhands,” “American Hustle”) to thank for this. Plus, the soundtrack includes songs by Annie Lennox, Sia, the Rolling Stones, and, for a spot of old-fashioned cheek-to-cheeking, Ol’ Blue Eyes himself warbling “Witchcraft.” Beyoncé’s appropriately sultry end-credits theme is already garnering airplay.
So even if bondage isn’t your thing, you might want to submit to a few MP3 downloads.
Otherwise, what we’ve got here is an old-fashioned, surprisingly timid bodice-ripper about a virginal college student who meets a GQ-dashing billionaire who, thanks to his very own Mrs. Robinson, comes with a few kinks. But let’s not be coy: the guy’s into whips, chains and handcuffs. “I don’t do romance,” he warns his latest submissive. “My tastes are very singular.”
Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and telecommunications titan Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, the serial killer in BBC’s “The Fall”) meet in a sequence straight out of “Valley of the Dolls”: the studiously frumpy Anastasia, subbing for a friend, interviews the Seattle power-broker for her school newspaper. Before peppering him with the most inane questions ‒ which fetch the expected double entendres ‒ she literally falls on her face. Of course, because this is a naughty Cinderella fable, it’s still lust at first sight. Grey wants Anastasia to become his new sex slave, aka submissive. And just to prove he means business, he gives her a tour of his “Red Room of Pain” and then has her peruse the fine print in his standard master-slave agreement.
Christian allows that he may be a wee bit controlling; Anastasia, drawing on her Brit-lit background, calls him “high-handed.” The truth? He’s a closet romantic posing as penthouse sadist. He just needs a strong woman to whip him into shape.
Had director Sam Taylor-Johnson (see New York Times interview) played the contract-signing sequence for wry humor ‒ a la Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” ‒ she might have been onto something. Certainly the boardroom negotiations cry out for tongue to be placed firmly in cheek. Light flogging and fur-lined handcuffs? OK. Anal and vaginal fisting? Uh-uh. Strike that. Genital clamps? Definitely not. Suspension harness? Sounds harmless enough. (Anastasia obviously hasn’t seen “Behind the Green Door.”)
A number of other scenes are equally funny but played straight-faced, more by Johnson, who spends most of the film gnawing her lower lip, than by Dornan, whose “dominant” couldn’t be any more self-conscious or malleable; he seems to be forever apologizing for his fetish. In Dornan’s defense, who could sell such lines as “I am mad — palm-twitchingly mad”? Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden was somehow corralled into playing Christian’s mother. Eloise Mumford appears as Anastasia’s roomie. Like much else here, her character doesn’t make sense: She comes on like a party girl even as she lectures Anastasia to proceed with caution.
Sociologists should have more fun with “Fifty Shades” than film critics. As silly and, yes, sanctimonious as this adaptation is, it deserves mention as one of the first major studio releases in ages to promote sex over vigilante violence or superherodom. Indeed, you’d have to go back to Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) and, before that, to “9 1/2 Weeks” (1986) to find its near equivalent. And that, in a peculiar way, makes this film a refreshing departure.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY ✮✮ With Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden, Eloise Mumford. Directed by Sam-Taylor Johnson; scripted by Kelly Marcel from the E.L. James novel. 125 min. Rated R (for profanity; typically sexist, mostly female nudity; mild bondage scenes)