** out of ****
I go to see films like Fifty Shades of Grey, in the hope that I will experience a rare case of bad material being wielded into good cinema. Plenty of erotic films have existed simply as big budget soft-core pornos with a strong enough atmosphere to be considered art. Take a look at Tony Scott’s The Hunger. It’s a dark erotic fantasy film featuring beautiful people with mysterious, yet intriguing motivations behind their seductions. Like Fifty Shades, it was also inspired by vampire fiction.
Fifty Shades, however, features no supernatural elements, aside from the typical case of a simple lonely girl being pursued by a very attractive, infinitely wealthy libidinous man. To know its author, E.L. James was inspired by the Twilight Saga makes a lot of sense. In this case, our female protagonist is Anastasia Steele, an undergrad sent to interview an industrial billionaire named Christian Grey on the top floor of his company’s skyscraper in Seattle. Grey is easily like the vampire-lover, Edward Cullen: A seemingly perfect hot guy with a dangerous side to reveal. After their brief encounter, he stocks Anastasia and seduces her into his lair, occasionally pushing her away, insisting she doesn't want to know him. But, you know, she does –and eventually reveals his peculiar tastes and terms for a sexual relationship.
No self-respecting fan of good literature I’ve met, has anything nice to say about this book. I get an idea of how shallow it is even though the film tries very hard to rise above the content. Dakota Johnson is very good at imposing some real emotion on such an unrealized character as Anastasia. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is possibly this films most winning asset. Combined with music by Danny Elfman and songs by Sia, The Weeknd and Beyonce, the exotic aspects of this film are rather well captured.
Jamie Dornan, however, does little to emotionally justify the complicated Grey. He’s good-looking with a strong screen presence, but doesn’t seem to have explored the psychology of what comes across as a gentle sadist in search of a submissive. Compared to his co-star, who bares all, Dornan keeps his goods off-screen. This not only sets popular erotic R-rated cinema back twenty years, it’s also in defiance of its target audience. Why cast a prude like Dornan if it leaves Johnson behind with all the potential humiliation?
In the end, the sexual elements of this film aren’t as explicit as people hoped or feared. Without the allure of its erotic qualities controlling the movie, I was left seeing this story for what it really is: A luxury fantasy showcasing material goods as if they’re the real temptation for Anastasia with the question of whether the imposed sex life is worth the compromise. That’s just not interesting to me.
There’s a film from 2002, called Secretary, where Maggie Gyllenhaal is attracted to her boss because she is actually thrilled by the sadistic submission he demands. That movie is much better than this one because its strange characters are discovering how their needs are compatible. Her boss, played by James Spader, is named Mr. Grey. Coincidence? You decide.