Review: 'Fifty Shades of Grey' May Actually Defy Your Expectations
by Jeremy Kirk
February 15, 2015
Fifty Shades of Grey is not the disgusting trainwreck of awful filmmaking and horrendous acting some of you were expecting. It’s not even the steamy, sexually enlightening handbook for which some of you were hoping. The adaptation to E.L. James’ nationwide bestseller – itself based from Twilight fan fiction – was inevitably going to stir up controversy of all manner before its release, but the film, itself, is both tamer and, surprisingly, more accomplished than the preemptive lack of credit being given. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, it’s is a freshly-shot film telling a weakly-crafted story, the latter criticism of which seems to be built in to today’s Hollywood release structure. It’s the first of a three act story, but Fifty Shades of Grey brings enough visual style – and one solid lead performer – to keep you on board for the eventual trilogy.
We’re introduced to this multi-shaded world of Christian Grey through the eyes of college senior Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson. She’s the epitome of innocence; mousy, sweet, and completely naïve to what she’s walking into when she interviews the billionaire playboy, played by Jamie Dornan, for her school newspaper. The connection between them grows within an instant, infatuation quickly sprouting into full-blown love. But, for all the laptops and shiny, red cars Christian buys for her, Anastasia has a serious decision to make about him. You see, Christian has very specific, sexual tendencies; the bondage, discipline, domination/submission type of tendencies. A novice when it comes to even holding hands, Anastasia is unsure if she can overcome the fear Grey’s world gives her to ultimately find true love with this man. Only time – and a few, well-placed flog marks – will tell.
First and foremost, strike any comparisons you might have between this film series and the Twilight movies. Yes, the fan fiction angle is what got the Fifty Shades ball rolling, and it’s been the only comparison anyone’s been able to make without reading James’ original novel. Their shared audience – some might call them fanatics – is another point, but not one you could use with any depth when criticizing this film.
Saving Mr. Banks co-writer Kelly Marcel was tasked with adapting James’ novel to the big screen, a job she seems to have accomplished with unmediated, no-frills-allowed directness. Some of the dialogue from James’ novel even finds its way into Marcel’s screenplay verbatim, probably the most jarringly lame and awkward moments coming from this. It’s as if everyone knows the source material is weak, but the key demographic dictates the similarities. Dornan’s utterance of the dialogue “I’m fifty shades of fucked up” is softly spoken and casually captured, as if the director didn’t really want to include but had her hand forced.
Speaking of Taylor-Johnson, she brings to Fifty Shades the first semblance of hope this series has of actually being worthwhile. Her direction includes interesting camera movements and some rich depth when it comes to the color scheme she’s using. It’s easy to accomplish the greyness of Seattle, where the story takes place, but Taylor-Johnson makes the almost subversive choice of actually letting a little sun come out now and again. Sure, using the weather to create a thematic mood is a little filmmaking 101, but it works for this film’s simplistic attitude. It doesn’t hurt that she brings cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, her collaborating DoP from Nowhere Boy, along for the ride. The deep textures they give to every exterior and interior in the Fifty Shades of Grey world is far more commendable than anything going on with the story.
Not more commendable, though, than Dakota Johnson’s performance. There’s a very one-dimensional, casually flowing way someone could have played Anastasia, and it would have been the shallow performance many were expecting. Johnson chooses to play the role any way but that. She has a genuine sweetness about her, a sense of humor and playfulness that seems to be a defense mechanism for the naïve Anastasia. Her curiosity, though, subtly brightens as the film progresses. Taylor-Johnson and her lead actress create a fine character conduit for the audience into Grey’s BDSM world, her sincerity and realism often hitting the right notes or showing the right reactions.
Dornan, on the other hand, creates something of a mystery when it comes to Christian Grey. It’s not the suave, cool mystery you’d think would be ideal for such a role, either. His Grey is, pardon the obvious puns, wooden and stiff, a coldness that repels you instead of luring you in to discover more. The character is written poorly, often coming off more as a demented stalker than the Bruce Wayne of kink. The actor, unfortunately, doesn’t do the character any favors, rigidly moving in his suits and bumbling through some of that wretched dialogue. He takes Grey’s strange proclivities and seems to be using those to create the day-to-day character, an inappropriate choice that makes the character something of a creep in and out of the bedroom.
The awkward choices, complete lack of story progression, and milquetoast handling of its subject matter takes its toll, and Fifty Shades of Grey ends up being an adaptation sure to satisfy few completely, that goes for lovers and haters of the source material alike. But there’s a starting point from which the cast and crew behind this series’ future have a chance of expanding upon. Its stunning look and above-and-beyond lead performance aren’t enough to make this film the period point at the end of the BDSM conversation in cinematic terms. Steven Shainberg's Secretary still handles a helluva lot more of that and with subtle and humorous results. Fifty Shades of Grey is gauche. It knows it’s gauche. At least it’s not ugly.