The Pitch: OK then. Gainsboro, silver, spanish, dim, Davy’s, platinum, ash, charcoal, battleship, cool, cadet, glaucous, slate, puce, rose quartz, cinerous, metallic, taupe, er… light, medium, dark… er… have I already said battleship? Is it too late to call it Twenty Shades Of Grey instead?
The Review: You might be asking yourself, when the book sold more copies in the UK than all seven Harry Potter novels put together and when the trailer has been watched by more people worldwide than either the Avengers sequel or Star Wars revival trailers, should I go to see the new film version of Fifty Shades Of Grey? Apparently you’re one of the ten people in existence who hasn’t actually read the book (I am also one of those ten, although I’ve now read enough of it online in constructing this review to want to poke the rusty end of an old coathanger in through my ear to swirl my brain around for a bit in the hope that I’ll forget), so may I present this convenient fifty step guide to your potential cinema experience. You and I both know you’ve already decided if you’re going or not, but it wouldn’t hurt to read this first.
1. There’s a genre of fiction that has had vast chunks of words devoted to it since the birth of the internet, and it features characters from existing works of fiction having highly sexual encounters. This could be anything from Harry Potter to (seriously) The LEGO Movie.
2. One such work was called Masters Of The Universe and it was based on the Twilight series. Yes, the one with the sulky vampires and randy werewolves. As far as I am aware, it didn’t feature any actual Masters Of The Universe characters such as He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms or Fisto, although I imagine he’d have fit right in.
3. It was written under the pen name of Snowqueens Icedragon. Opinion is divided online as to whether that user name featured an apostrophe or not, given that the standard of the other writing in the story wouldn’t be an indication.
4. It was later then withdrawn and republished as three novels called Fifty Shades Of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, the last of which doesn’t even make sense as a title.
5. Despite seemingly being read by almost as many people as The Bible, the book has been correctly condemned for featuring some of the most horrific mangling of the English language ever to see print. Here’s some examples.
6. “I feel the colour in my cheeks rising again. I must be the colour of The Communist Manifesto.” The book apparently features an incessant amount of Ana (Dakota Johnson in the film) expressing her inner goddess; thankfully – or disappointingly for lovers of excruciatingly bad dialogue – none of this makes it to the film.
7. “The orange juice tastes divine. It’s thirst-quenching and refreshing.” The film does feature orange juice and medication with accompanying signs saying “Eat me” and “Drink me”, suggesting this is some form of sadistic remake of Alice In Wonderland.
8. “My very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba.” Dakota Johnson does get to show off her dance moves at one point, a rare moment when someone – anyone – actually seems to be enjoying themselves.
9. “Now I know what all the fuss is about. Two orgasms… coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow.” Apart from a singular lack of understanding about basic home appliance mechanics, this is something else that doesn’t make it into the film: there isn’t a single orgasm, leaving the film feeling like some form of neutered foreplay manual.
10. “I’m all deer/headlights, moth/flame, bird/snake … and he knows exactly what he’s doing to me.” I think we also know what E.L. James is doing to the English language, and it’s probably more painful than anything Christian’s ever come up with.
11. “Why is anyone the way they are? That’s kind of hard to answer. Why do some people like cheese and other people hate it? Do you like cheese?” A question you would do well to ask yourself before buying a ticket.
12. I think you get the idea. So the makers of the film hired Kelly Marcel (writer of Saving Mr. Banks and, er, Debbie Does Dallas, The Musical) and had a script polish reportedly performed by Patrick Marber (Closer, The Day Today) and Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4.0, The Wolverine). They have between them hidden or excised much of the most embarrassing dialogue, but in its place have failed to find any worthwhile or interesting dialogue.
13. They also hired Sam Taylor-Johnson, who is married to the bloke from Godzilla who ends up always being in the right place at the wrong time. Insert your own joke.
14. The next decision made was to excise some of the novel’s ickier concepts, such as the infamous tampon scene. According to Taylor-Johnson, they never even discussed this being in the film. (Really? Not actually a discussion? You all just telepathically knew which bits you wanted and which you didn’t?)
15. The film opens with Ana visiting the offices of Christian Grey (the third extraordinarily rich, oddball philanthropist I’ve seen in the fifteen films I’ve seen this year, and I’ve not even seen Tony Stark in a film yet. What are the odds?).
16. Ana is an English major who is apparently incapable of coming up with ten minutes’ worth of questions for a well-known entrepreneur, and also so smitten with a man she’s barely met that she’s incapable of making value judgements on questions written down in front of her.
17. When she enters Christian’s office, she also stumbles and falls to her knees, a clumsy and obvious piece of symbolism that still made it through the value judgement of at least three separate writers.
18. Although she believes the interview has gone badly, Christian later appears unexpectedly in the hardware store where Ana works around 200 miles away. She in no way finds this suspicious, stalker-like behaviour.
19. Ana later gets drunk on a night out and drunk dials Christian, who then appears at the bar she’s drinking at as if he’s in some way omnipresent. He then repeatedly shows up at places where she is without any knowledge of her whereabouts, suggesting either that he’s abusing his telecommunications business on an industrial scale or worse options that are barely worth contemplating. At no point does Ana raise more than the mildest of objections to this conduct.
20. This is also around the time that Ana’s friend José (Victor Rasuk) makes a clumsy, aggressive pass at her while drunk. This, along with José, is then also completely forgotten about. They should have tried to get Taylor Lautner to play this (he of the equivalent Twilight role) just for a laugh.
21. Christian performs gentlemanly acts such as holding Ana’s hair back while she vomits and pulling her out of the road so she avoids being run over by cyclists. Did I mention he’s also a billionaire? While Jamie Dorman as Christian does stern and brooding about as well as anyone could, it’s unfortunate that he appears to have confused the words concentration and constipation but has largely the same facial expression for both.
22. Once Christian has won over Ana’s inital trust with acts of basic decency and snogging her in a lift, he then takes up to the roof and shows her his massive chopper. This is not only a useful euphemism for a helicopter, but also allows me to reference the fact that this is the only chopper on display here: Fifty Shades takes the default Hollywood position of full-frontal nudity for the woman and either topless only or two shots of buttocks for the man. This, yet again, makes me feel slightly more ashamed to be a man, but slightly less ashamed than usual when the writer and director are both women.
23. Christian then asks Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which is a standard business practice for confidentiality but a thoroughly non-standard practice for a man who appears seemingly at random wherever you are, demanding your attention.
24. Christian explains to Ana that he’s not looking for a romantic relationship, and also mentions at various points that he wants to avoid physical contact, before he divests her of her virginity. Mixed messages there, fella.
25. Christian is visited by his mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who appears to be playing against type by being lovely, apart from the fact that one of her friends used Christian as a submissive for six years. The film occasionally throws chunks of exposition at the wall like overcooked spaghetti in the hope that enough of it will stick to explain Christian’s behaviour, under the assumption that Christian’s behaviour needs explicit explanation.
26. Ana is given a free laptop to research more of the sexual practices Christian is looking for Ana to be subjected to, at which point she types “submissive” into a search engine and comes back with some fairly timid fetish photography that is still more extreme than most of what’s made it into the sex scenes. Was I the only person wondering if she had Safe Search turned on or off?
27. Christian and Ana then have a business dinner where they discuss the contract Christian is looking to commit Ana to, where she has various practices removed from the contract but also reveals that not only has her Googling yet to reveal to her what butt plugs are, but that she has a singular lack of imagination for an English major.
28. The scene with the signing of the contract (in which they don’t actually sign the contract), along with much of the first half of the film, is accompanied by a jaunty Danny Elfman score which suggests that this is really a light-hearted comedy of manners.
29. When jaunty Elfman isn’t playing in the background, the soundtrack is littered with heavily sexualised versions of popular tunes and mixes modern artists such as The Weeknd, Sia, Ellie Goulding and Beyoncé with older names such as The Rolling Stones and Annie Lennox. It is by far the best thing about the film and will sell by the absolute bucketload. Clearly the lessons of Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman haven’t been completely forgotten.
30. Speaking of Pretty Woman, this whole film is essentially a grimmer version of Pretty Woman, as rich man uses money, power and influence to obtain a woman he’s fallen for having barely known her, except instead of love overcoming the evils of prostitution this is just a grim exploration of a misunderstanding of how BDSM works.
31. The other obvious touchstone for the film is 9 1/2 Weeks, in that Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke famously emptied the contents of the fridge over each other and explored some fairly graphic sexual practices, and here Christian ties up Ana’s wrists and rubs an ice cube over her. If that sounds like a backwards step, let’s not forget that 9 1/2 weeks encouraged mass walkouts at the cinema and scraped together a cult following on DVD; Fifty Shades had a midnight opening with the same level of box office as the last Transformers and Spider-Man films.
32. There are other reminders and references to films with two or three shades of similarity. That starts with Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith – and delivering much the same breathy intensity as her mum did in Working Girl, another film about attempting to win the heart of a wealthy but aloof businessman who she’s sleeping with regularly – and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, which means you really would think she would be more generally wary of dubious male behaviour.
33. It’s also reinforced by Jennifer Ehle, and while the closest she’s ever been to rampant depictions of sexuality was Colin Firth clambering moistly out of a lake, the film makers have attempted to reimagine Fifty Shades as a story of feminine empowerment. There is, of course, more female empowerment on display in a novel written over two hundred years ago than anything here.
34. So what is Fifty Shades about? Well, it’s not about abuse if you believe the film makers, because Ana enters into the arrangement voluntarily, other than Christian stalking her over a several hundred mile area, invading her privacy at regular intervals and nagging her until she caves into his requests at every opportunity that he gets, in a manner that feels eerily reminiscent of Bart and Lisa Simpson and their efforts to be taken to Mount Splashmore.
35. Then there’s the claims that it’s misunderstood the nature and practices of BDSM (bondage / discipline, dominance / submission, sadism / masochism – yes I know that’s technically BDDSSM but I don’t make the rules). I’m not an expert in this, but most of the articles from people who are would seem to suggest that Fifty Shades is more just about an extravagant control freak exercising his will than it is any kind of attempt to analyse or understand the more extreme side of safe sexual practice.
36. While it isn’t about abuse directly, there are strong themes of control, with Ana and Christian engaged in a mental power struggle, each attempting to assert their own control over the other. This, in the first half especially, is where the film manages to rise above its source material and for a while seems in danger of actually having something interesting to say.
37. But what neither the film, nor its makers, seem to grasp is that abuse is a control mechanism, and Christian’s control mechanisms are all teetering so close to abuse that there’s really little value to be had from arguing any difference. The fact that Ana has been manoeuvred into this situation just makes it all the more distasteful that those involved with the production would then attempt to recast this as an empowering romance.
38. So what we’re left with is the twenty-first century equivalent of a romantic comedy with most of the romance and all of the comedy surgically extracted, and where we’re then left with two hours of waiting for the next attempt at titillation.
39. Now we’ve come full circle: the real purpose of the genre of the fanfiction from which this sprung, and of pretty much any erotic fiction ever written for that matter, is to stimulate sexual excitement in the reader. Typically that would be the female reader, as men generally seem to be more content with some pictures or a video if the Internet as a whole is anything to judge by. (I hate sweeping generalisations but I think there’s some truth in that one.)
40. This is then where the film must be judged: if any attempts at social discourse have failed, is it at least sexy? Initially yes, despite Johnson and Dornan having less chemistry than a ten year old’s first box of test tubes and random chemicals, Taylor-Johnson does manage to make the most of Ana and Christian’s first couple of sexual encounters.
41. Sadly then, with nowhere else left to go, the remaining encounters follow the pattern of the rest of the film in leaking away the tension and also evoking little sympathy for anyone involved (especially the actors, who are either being well paid or should have known better).
42. As well as being about the sex, works of fiction from this to Working Girl and Pretty Woman are an escapist fantasy, the thought of submitting to a powerful man (even with the occasional scene of empowerment) being a consistent theme within the genre, but there would be more to be gained from exploring Ana’s conflicted feelings than Fifty Shades the film ever seems keen on.
43. What you’re left with is an odd combination of the exact structure of the novel with the trashy pleasure of the appalling writing sanitised completely out of the script and the sex scenes avoiding male nudity, orgasms and anything else that might generate controversy. The fact that the French gave this a 12 rating isn’t as controversial as you might think.
44. Given that so many films over the past couple of years, from Blue Is The Warmest Colour to Nymphomaniac and Stranger By The Lake, have used sex to explore facets of character so much more successfully, the fact that most of those have barely been seen by anyone and that this has a bigger target audience than bread is all the more depressing.
45. The only person likely to come out of this with their dignity intact is oddly the person who spends most of the film having it stripped away. Dakota Johnson does what she can with the role and, after tiny roles in the likes of 21 Jump Street, she may actually defy the odds and go onto a successful career from this, even if it is remakes of Marilyn Monroe films and Working Girl 2: The Daughter That Oughta.
46. Well actually… when I said the best / worst dialogue didn’t make it into the film, there are a few examples. If you hear anyone in real life using Christian’s catchphrase of “Laters, baby” you have my permission to give them an entirely non-BDSM slap. (Disclaimer: please don’t slap anyone on my say so.)
47. There is no escaping the fact that, at over two hours, the film feels too long. I would love to try to make a joke about length at this point but it’s just become too hard.
48. And that just leaves us with the three likely reactions most audiences will experience at the end of the film, which were certainly felt vocally by the group I saw the film with. Firstly when the credits roll: “is that it?”
49. Secondly: “9 1/2 Weeks was better.”
50. Thirdly, about thirty seconds into the credits: “Rita Ora’s in this?!?!” Now you can play the exciting game of Spot The Ora to pass the time.
Why see it at the cinema: If, rather than discreetly reading graphic descriptions of sexual activity in the privacy of your own home, you’d prefer to sit in a room with several hundred other people gawping at a half-naked man and a fully naked woman not quite having sex at occasional intervals, then knock yourself out. But don’t come crying to me afterwards.
What about the rating? Rated 18 for strong sex. A description that caused two people sat behind me in the cinema to proclaim “ooh, strong sex” in a manner reminiscent of Frankie Howerd. Titter ye not, missus.
So let’s be clear about this: the marketing suggests that the film features about twenty minutes of sex across a two hour run time, which suggests a very generous description of when the sex actually starts; possibly when the two characters enter a room within minutes of each other. If you are coming for the sex (if you’ll pardon the expression), then you may be better advised to wait for the DVD so you can fast forward the boring bits.
My cinema experience: Seen at the Abbeygate in Bury St Edmunds with an early morning (but very full) audience that is likely to be the norm for weeks to come. Good luck finding something – anything – else to watch. At least the cinema only detained us with fifteen minutes of ads and trailers up front.
The Score: 5/10