Review: 'Fifty Shades of Grey' May Actually Defy Your Expectations

February 15, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

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.

Fifty Shades of Grey

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.

Fifty Shades of Grey

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.

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Pick the short straw Jeremy?

Steven on Feb 15, 2015


Anyone who sees this film is an idiot. Its the end of civilization as we know it.

Susan on Feb 15, 2015


I saw it and I am still here.

Elita Hooper on Feb 15, 2015


No argument here.

John Doe on Feb 15, 2015


You're a complete moron. Is it a stupid movie? Undoubtedly. Is is THAT bad? No, absolutely not, NO movie is ever that bad. Quit being a "doomsayer" and trying to get attention. It's pathetic. You should be ashamed of yourself to the very core.

davidshaw on Feb 15, 2015


No movie is ever that bad, huh? Go watch "After Earth"....

JBroti on Feb 16, 2015


I think Showgirls was "THAT" bad.

LightningB on Feb 16, 2015


Yeah but every Transformers makes a billion dollars and everyone of those has been trash. But I guess the difference is they aren't trying to make anything more than mindless action with those. I'm not going to bash Fifty Shades though as I have not seen it and have no intention of doing so.

LightningB on Feb 16, 2015


Bo, I'm an adult, a wife, mother, a graduate of NYU Film School a.k.a. Tisch School of the Arts, a lawyer, former Assistant District Attorney in NYC and have been called worse names by people of more significance than Davidshaw. He didn't bother me in the least. Its nice of you to be gallant and worry about my being offended. By the way, when I was in film school, my future husband and I went to a film festival called "The Worst Movies Ever Made." We saw The Attack of The Killer Tomatoes and Plan 9 From Outer Space (an Ed Wood film). Those were so bad. What is more disturbing about 50 Shades of Crap is that it demeans women in a vile way. Women don't want to be whipped and beaten and I don't want to see women being urged to submit to being whipped and beaten. If I was into that sort of thing, I would see it for free on the internet. I'm no prude by any means. I loved Kingsman and its rude, funny, over the top violence and sexual innuendo. The difference is that Kingsman is a very good movie with excellent actors, particularly Colin Firth who is something to behold.

Susan on Feb 16, 2015


Thank you for your compellent. I am jealous of your career. I am old too and when I graduated from film school, cable was in its infancy. I couldn't get a job in the film or television industry (no contacts or nepotism) so I went to law school I had the grades and LSAT scores to get into a great school. As you may have summised, I live in the NYC metro area. Still I have not heard of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. I will see it. I very much admired a film by female director Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right. I hope she does more. Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo and Mia Wasikowska (she was great in Jane Eyre with Michael Fassbinder - if you haven't see the Steve McQueen classic Shame with Fassbinder, you must run out and get a copy). I feel so sorry for Paul Schrader. The Canyons was well, horrible. He is not the only great filmmaker that cannot get financing anymore. The Great Great John Sayles can't get a film made anymore either. He made Lone Star, Matawan, Eight Men Out, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Hudson City, Shes the One, Lilliana, and many more. Many of these films made money. So sad. A Woman Under the influence (a Cassavetes film in case anyone is reading this other than Bo) needs to be restored. The last time I saw it on TCM, I was shocked. If you still have Hollywood connections, please speak to someone who can help. Cassavetes and Rowland's son Nick is a good filmmaker too, but not in his father's league. Didn't you enjoy Gloria with Rowlands? They made a horrible remake with Sharon Stone I think. Yes I love cinema, not garbage and particularly not garbage that humiliates and subjugates women. Nice to chat.

Susan on Feb 17, 2015


Have to disagree with you on Sayles. Maybe its because I'm an East Coast woman. My husband is from Hoboken originally and he felt like Hudson City was a biography of his father and brother. I also love, love baseball and adored Eight Men Out. I also have seen innumerable plays and loved Matawan. James Earl Jones is such an amazing stage actor. His Othello with Christopher Plummer, August Wilson's Fences and Paul Robson were spine tinglingly great. I intensely dislike Star Wars. Anyway, getting back to Sayles, he lives/lived in Hoboken. I just adore Chinese Bookie. What a great movie. I also like The Kids are Alright a lot more than you. I'm not a huge fan of Julianne Moore, but I thought the little seen film What Maisie Knew, with a terrific. Steve Coogan and Moore were both terrific in it. I also admire Todd Solaz. Far From Heaven was good, not Douglas Sirk over the top good like Written in the Wind and all this and Heaven too, but good. I'm not a fan of A Child is Born. Its not schmaltzy like Penny Serenade, which I am fond of because its to over the top, but the only thing I love about it is the stark photography and Judy Garland's performance. I admire Lancaster as a producer. He was brave. Would Judgment at Nuremberg have been made without him or A Child is Waiting or Come Back Little Sheba with a stunning performance by Shirley Booth that he had the grace to let outshine him. No. I didn't know about the Slap. I'm also a huge sports fan (Rangers, Mets, Jets, and not anymore, but was a Knick fan) so I don't watch network TV. I watch Masters of Sex, many episodes of which are directed by Michael Apted (Love Seven Up - a billion times better than the mediocre at best, boring, overrated Boyhood) and watched Boardwalk Empire. I thought that Whiplash and the Grand Budapest Hotel were much much better than Boyhood (J.K. Simmons, who I first saw many moons ago in a revival of Guys and Dolls with Peter Gallagher as Sky Masterson and Nathan Lane as Nathan (where he got his name from - his real name is Joe, but there was a Joe Lane already registered with Equity) and Faith Prince)). American Sniper was good too. Unforgiven is my favorite Eastwood film ever and Gene Hackman (who is supposed to be an a-hole in real life) was a great villain. The last film that I could wholeheartedly recommend is the hysterically funny send up of Bond Films, Kingsman. Colin Firth was just hilarious and so suave and debonair and kick ass - pun intended. What did you think of Mr. Turner? Tim Spall was unbelievable and should have been nominated for an Oscar and won. That he didn't win for Secrets and Lies is still a travesty. However, the film as a whole was not my favorite Mike Leigh film by any stretch of the imagination. Turner was loathsome in some ways and generous in others, but he was his ART and that is the point. Sunday in the Park With George without the Sondheim music and pretension. What did you think of Mr. Turner.

Susan on Feb 19, 2015


I love debating film with someone very knowledgeable. A Child is Born - A child is waiting. I had Judy Garland on the brain. Funny. I will see some of the films if you promise you will watch Secrets and Lies (Mike Leigh). Its a great film. BTW, you can wait to see Mr. Turner on TV. Its not Lawrence of Arabia for goodness sake and will work well on a small screen. Its not a great film by any means, but Spall is incredible. His son is quite a good actor (Rafe Spall). I saw him in a BBC version of The Wide Sargasso Sea (love the classic novel and hate the theatrical release). It stars the sublime Rebecca Hall (I saw her on Bway in Machanl and she was magnificent) and Rafe Spall as Mr. Rochester. I don't think its been taken down from youtube. Just great. Take care and see you at the movies (I hope you saw Life Itself - not great but interesting as Ebert had a full life - I trust that you saw a great documentary - Tim's Vermeer).

Susan on Feb 20, 2015


Read the book. Badly written. Saw the film. Hoped for an "elevation" from the depths of the novel. But sadly, the two main leads have no chemistry AT ALL. The "sex scenes" are a borefest for anyone who actually had good sex for real. There are even sequences where they "pan" away from the sex, like an 80s movie. The soundtrack is good times... The movie IMO is for a crowd that still "screams in fear" at the sight of a nipple. Maybe the sequels will be better. I doubt it but here is hoping again.

Stefan Kuhlmann on Feb 16, 2015


Yeah...I won't be seeing this one. I am sorry for the millions of guys who will be dragged to this one.

DAVIDPD on Feb 16, 2015


At a showing here, 3 women attacked a man and he ended up getting glassed in the face. I'm too scared to go.

Carpola on Feb 16, 2015



C.A. Hall on Feb 16, 2015


Alcohol. 🙂 I like how they just cleaned off the blood for the next showing.

Carpola on Feb 16, 2015


Thanks Jeremy, but I'll stick with all the other countless reviewers comparing this to Showgirls-level terribleness.

cuckoozey on Feb 16, 2015


I'm so glad I have a girl that has ZERO interest in this crap film. Star Wars here we come.

IamSlave on Feb 16, 2015


So, of the 10 commenters here bashing the movie, only about 2 have seen it? Yep, thats a pretty standard internet signal to noise ratio, I suppose.

Movie Bear on Feb 16, 2015


I'll live my entire life without caring one iota about this retarded film.

txJM on Feb 16, 2015


I got dragged to watch it last night... after all the giggling and little "tehe" here and there... you begin to realize that it is not at all what you're probably expecting. Visually it is nice and the acting is good, but the script and screenwriting RUINS the film... its so boring and very much along the lines to the way the book is written. Just awful. I almost fell asleep. Quite honestly, it surpassed my expectaitions because I was expecting another 'Twilight' garbage but nonetheless its still a bad film.

JayCee on Feb 16, 2015


This movie came out just in time for Valentine's day which is why it is raking in the money. It's the same reason why Nicholas Sparks movies have been so successful. I went in with an open mind but this movie is awful. It feels like a late 80's early 90's film like Color of Night and it barely reached the heights of Basic Instinct. Writing was bad, Grey was more like the creepy guy who hangs around public toilets rather then suave like Bond. I know people are going to flock to this like Mcdonalds was offering free burgers. It is inevitable because the books were so popular but be prepared to be disappointed. The movie that Sam Taylor Johnson put together will never be your fantasies. With something as intimate as sexual fantasies, it was never going to live up to people's expectations. Your Mr Grey most likely isn't the same as this Mr Grey, at least I hope not, surely women/men have better imaginations then this wooden cardboard. Just my 2 cents.

TK on Feb 16, 2015


This is in reply to Bo, I'm an adult, a wife, mother, a graduate of NYU Film School, a.k.a. Tisch School of the Arts (concentration in Film Production), a lawyer (a litigator in Federal and State Courts), former Assistant District Attorney in NYC and have been called worse names by people of more significance than Davidshaw. He didn't bother me in the least. Its nice of you to be gallant and worry about my being offended. By the way, when I was in film school, my future husband and I went to a film festival called "The Worst Movies Ever Made." We saw The Attack of The Killer Tomatoes and Plan 9 From Outer Space (an Ed Wood film). I also sat through a film called Catch That Kid (I have a teenage son). Those films were so bad I can't describe them. What is disturbing about 50 Shades of Crap is that it demeans women in a vile way. Women don't want to be whipped and beaten and I don't want to see women being urged to submit to being whipped and beaten. If I was into that sort of thing, I would see it for free on the internet. I'm no prude by any means. I loved Kingsman and its rude, funny, over the top violence and sexual innuendo. The difference is that Kingsman is a very good movie with excellent actors, particularly Colin Firth, who is something to behold in Kingsman and every part he has ever played.

Susan on Feb 16, 2015


You say that but if you look at it most of the people responsible for the success or even the creation of this particular project are women. Don't get me wrong I am not a fan of the way in which it portrays women or the way the main character is treated but take a step back and see. The author of the book was a woman, the majority of the readers were women, the director of the movie was a woman and most likely the majority of audiences were women and few clearly unhappy boyfriends and husbands being dragged along like me haha. So clearly there are a few women who like to see stuff like this considering it is setting box office records already and I am crying at the fact I contributed.

TK on Feb 16, 2015


Also theres a lot of non consent that isn't part of the bdsm culture. Not okay at all.

speedracer on Feb 16, 2015


After Kelly Marcel did such a poor job writing the script for Saving Mr Banks I didn't expect 50 Shades to be much better. I am glad it wasn't "raunchy" as she said it would be, but it's unfortunate it ended up so one dimensional. Ironically the Twilight series did a far better job of bringing the viewer into an experience and developing the characters. 50 Shades had the ability to be so much more, including an Oscar. I wish it had been given that chance.

Beachwriter on Feb 17, 2015


Yes I have to agree with the Twilight movie. I tried to read the books but they were poorly written and someone was tasked with making that into a watchable movie...which they did lol. They weren't the greatest movies but the source material was far worse.

TK on Feb 17, 2015


I'm not bashing, because everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but I think it's funny how much our movie tastes differ. Any time you write a positive review about a movie, I end up hating it. Any time you write a bad one, I love it. All in all though, it is helpful! Keep on keepin' on. I'll avoid this like fire, as intended anyway.

Danimal on Feb 17, 2015

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