One thing should be said before any assessment or critique of the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey, based on author E.L. James’ runaway erotic fiction best seller, can be put forth: No matter who was making it, writing the adaptation or starring in it, it was never, ever going to be as “hot” as the way the book’s fervent fans imagined it in their minds as they were reading. Such is the pitfall of any adaptation into film of a book that holds so many imaginations captive — no work of film can possibly live up to all the expectations and flights of fancy of every fan.
That said, this film, built around a very impressive adapted screenplay by Saving Mr. Banks scribe Kelly Marcel and brave, committed performances from its leads, should stand as one of the very few occasions when the film experience vastly improves on the material upon which it is based.
To put it another way, if you haven’t yet read the novel version of Fifty Shades of Grey, don’t bother — just see the film, instead. Yes, you won’t be able to make comparisons, but you’ll get the gist of what James was trying to accomplish in the book, and it’s quite likely you’ll have a far more enjoyable entertainment experience.
The film’s plot follows Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson), a English literature major at Washington State University Vancouver, who as a favor for her journalist best friend Kate (Eliose Mumford) agrees to conduct an interview with Seattle telecommunications magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the university’s newspaper. Ana, by nature soft-spoken and socially awkward, finds herself at once intimidated and fascinated by Grey, who at the same time finds himself first curious about and later utterly captivated by her. Their mutual interest in each other eventually leads him to invite her into his world, but as Ana discovers, Grey “doesn’t do romance.” He doesn’t “make love”, go on dates, or spend quality time with his companions. It’s “not his thing.”
What he does do, what his experiences have taught him is his nature to do, is achieve control. His relationships with women are outlined in written contracts which detail dominant and submissive roles for the parties involved. When it becomes clear that not only is Ana wholly unfamiliar with the tools and practice of bondage play and domme/sub relationships, but is also entirely inexperienced in regards to sex, he becomes even more invested in making her “his.” For her part, Ana simply wants to be with Grey, so after protracted “negotiations”, she relents and submits herself to his whims … well, most of them.
Grey thus begins Ana’s education in what it means to be a submissive, what behaviors and acts earn rewards and punishments, and what it might mean to be wholly “owned” by someone, body and mind. That education, in turn, leads to them both struggling with their own individual natures, as Ana finds she needs more than just to be controlled, and Grey finds his feelings for Ana more and more conflicted. He finds his need to dominate suddenly challenged by an instinct he can’t bring himself to name, a feeling of attachment that he refuses to let himself feel, and his internal battle eventually threatens to destroy their passionate and fragile connection before it can truly fulfill either one of them.
Naturally, a major challenge to any film making team when tackling a work such as this for a mainstream movie audience, a written work almost notorious in 21st Century pop culture for its explicit (and according to many, harmfully erroneous) depictions of sadomasochism, bondage play, and dominant and submissive roles in BDSM relationships, is how to bring all that to life in a way that lives up to expectations yet doesn’t earn an NC-17 rating within an hour of its running time. The need to take the sex scenes down a notch from their depiction in print is an obvious one, but make no mistake here: what you get in the film’s four extended sex scenes, as well as all the sexual tension built around them, is tastefully, elegantly erotic. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson informs these scenes with a light touch and a focus on the tenderness that truly is possible even when such implements as riding crops and floggers are in play. Much attention is paid to facial expressions and reactions, and Taylor-Johnson puts a lot of faith in her actors’ ability to convey a great deal to the audience through their eyes, their breathing, and their body language. That faith is, for the most part, rewarded by the actors in question: despite any stories you might be seeing on the Hollywood gossip sites about lack of chemistry between the stars off-camera, and however much those stories might be true, when the cameras are on, Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan deliver.
But there’s a whole lot more to this film, which runs just over two hours, and this story than just the sex, regardless of whether that’s all audiences are there to see. Here’s where the lion’s share of the credit for just how well this film works must go to screenwriter Kelly Marcel. She successfully distills the essences of the characters from James’ novel while excising all the chaff, all the absurd internal monologue and wordy, stilted dialogue that’s often the number one reason critics of James’ work cite as to why they find the novel so torturous to read, why they find Anastasia to be so unbelievably childish and pathetic. Never once in the film does Anastasia think to herself or say, “Oh, my!” or “double crap!” and there’s only one “Holy Cow!” to be found in Dakota Johnson’s spoken lines, thankfully not during a sex scene. (Anastasia reportedly uses the phrase 19 times in the novel, often during intimate moments. Hot, huh?)
Similarly, Marcel’s version of Grey, while still retaining the characteristic control of his manner, his bearing, and his speech, and still displaying his need to control Ana in ways that might inspire others to seek out restraining orders and police protection, is softened just enough, made believably conflicted and challenged in his feelings for Ana just enough that he can be a credible romantic lead and an almost sympathetic figure. For this film to work for an audience beyond just fans of the novel as a romantic fantasy, that change simply had to happen.
If Marcel’s treatment of the material falters anywhere, it could be argued that its in the amount of time given to the story’s supporting characters, to the people around Ana and Grey, whose more conventional relationships serve as a contrast to what the central couple come to share and explore in the film. Perhaps there was more shot with the talented cast brought in to play these characters, in particular Callum Keith Rennie (“Battlestar Galactica”) as Ana’s beloved stepfather Ray and the always engaging Marcia Gay Harden as Grey’s mother, that ended up on the cutting room floor, edited for the sake of running time or pacing. If that’s not the case, then the casting seems like a waste, and the presence of the characters themselves in the film seems obligatory rather than organic and necessary to the film.
Finally, the work of two-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina) cannot be ignored in terms of how gorgeous this film looks from beginning to end. His and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s vision of the world and the settings of Fifty Shades of Grey do as much to seduce audiences as any action that takes place in the bedroom or Grey’s “playroom.” Watching the film, you want to step into world, to somehow be a part of that fantasy, if not live it out completely. The realization of their vision draws you in, and the characters, as portrayed by this cast, make you want more.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Fifty Shades of Grey
Starring Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Jennifer Ehle, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden, Max Martini, Eloise Mumford, Dylan Neal, Rita Ora, Victor Rasuk, Callum Keith Rennie. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.
Running Time: 125 minutes
Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language.