Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

By Laura K. Garrison

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It seems only yesterday it was the summer of 2012, a time when you couldn’t enter a subway car or take a walk on the beach without seeing someone unabashedly reading a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey in public. The internet was collectively obsessed with the Twilight fan-fiction that had for some unfathomable reason garnered enough attention to warrant a book deal, analyzing everything from its sexual politics to the cultural ramifications of its popularity to the cringe-worthiness of its prose. Almost three years later, it appears the internet is experiencing déjà vu, as article upon article about the film adaptation of the first book in the Fifty Shades trilogy inundates my Facebook Newsfeed. Love it or hate it, American popular culture is about as obsessed with Fifty Shades as Christian Grey is with Ana Steele.

I’ll admit to reading about 2 ½ books of the trilogy before giving up out of boredom. And while by no measure would I suggest that Fifty Shades is in any way high (or even decent) literature, the books were a fun beach read for my friends and I during the first weeks of summer spent recuperating from college finals. So with some sort of investment in the series, I escaped the bitter cold last Friday night by seeing Fifty Shades of Grey in theaters. After reading for months about how the film lacked chemistry, cohesion, and, perhaps most importantly, significant sex scenes, my expectations were low. But for this fact, I might have been disappointed. And while Fifty Shades of Grey is certainly not a good movie, like its source material it’s passably entertaining.

I was partially interested in seeing the film on its opening night to catch a glimpse of its audience. Fifty Shades has earned its reputation as being “mommy porn” most popular in the Bible belt states. In the cosmopolitan city of New York City, where people can take advantage of any number of cultural pursuits on any given night, the middle-aged mom demographic was present, but not overwhelming. The majority of the people in the crowd appeared to be like me: young women in their twenties ready for a girls’ night out with their friends. There were a significant number of couples in the audience, though most of the men in attendance seemed to be putting on a brave face or at the very least coolly disinterested. Most surprisingly, there were a number of young children occupying seats, inexplicably accompanying their parents to see a film based on a BDSM-tinged erotic romance novel. Please parents, invest in a babysitter.

As for the film itself, the early reviews were right: there is virtually no chemistry between the two leads, Dakota Johnson and Jaime Dornan. While there’s no doubt that Dornan is attractive enough to play the handsome, “fifty shades of fucked up” billionaire Christian Grey, his performance was often forced and conveyed little of the raw, damaged sex appeal that appealed to the trilogy’s fans on paper. Dornan is at his sexiest when he climbs into bed and takes a bite out of a piece of toast in Ana’s hands; no wonder Last Week Tonight with John Oliver began their #notmyChristian campaign. Dornan was not the first choice for the role, which had initially been awarded to Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam, but he appeared to be the better fit (Hunnam seems too rugged to play the more refined Christian Grey). With film adaptations of Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed coming in the not-too-distant future, here’s to hoping that Dornan can pick up the slack.

Dakota Johnson, on the other hand, simply stole the show. Her character Anastasia “Ana” Steele is perhaps the blandest, most pathetic female character to ever grace the pages of a novel, both due to the fact that she is loosely based upon Bella Swan from Twilight and the hope that readers could easily insert themselves into the story in her place. Despite having very little material to work with, Johnson’s portrayal is fresh and funny, overshadowing Dornan’s lacking intensity. She’s particularly amusing during a scene in which Ana drunk calls Christian and endows Ana with an uncharacteristic determination and decisiveness when she negotiates the terms of her Dom/sub contract with Christian. While the books certainly focused more on the character development of Christian, Johnson’s performance makes the movie about Ana. Though all references to Ana’s inner goddess and subconscious have been removed for the film, she’s still excessively biting her lip.

For a film based upon a romance novel, Fifty Shades of Grey has only a handful of sex scenes, most of which feature light bondage and are about as scandalous as your average HBO fare. There is ample nudity from Dakota Johnson, including slight glimpses of full pubic hair. Dornan’s abs and butt make several welcome appearances, but the lack of full frontal male nudity, especially in comparison to the film’s frequent female nudity, is disappointing, particularly in a film predominantly marketed towards women and directed by a woman, Sam Taylor-Johnson. The middle of the film is slow and relies too heavily on dialogue between Ana and Christian, while much of the plot from the book is condensed or cut. The film would have benefitted from more time given to other characters, particularly Grace Grey, Christian’s overbearing mother played by Marcia Gay Harden. The film has a Twilight-esque feel to it, especially during a scene in which Christian and Ana wander through a forest while he talks about his past. The most dramatic moments are in the final minutes, when the reality of Christian’s sexual needs pushes Ana to leave him. As the elevator door closes between them, they say each other’s names as they did when they first met before the screen goes black.

All in all, the film is a set-up for the next installment, and the ending may be the only point at which the audience feels truly invested in the storyline. Considering the quality of the Fifty Shades trilogy, the film was better than expected but will probably have little appeal for those unfamiliar with the books. The subtle humor in the film, much of it from Dakota Johnson, was welcome and gave the movie a self-awareness it desperately needed. The best part of the film is undoubtedly the soundtrack, which features The Weeknd’s “Earned It” and a remix of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” used in the first trailer. While projections suggest that Fifty Shades of Grey will be a huge box office success, there’s much improvement to be made for the second and third films. Until then, as Christian would say, “Laters, baby.”

Laura K. Garrison is a Senior at Barnard College and the Senior Editor of The Nine Ways of Knowing.

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