It’s always surprised me how certain books manage to capture the public’s imagination for inordinate amounts of time. There always seem to be a handful of novels that wind up staying on the bestseller list for weeks, if not years. We all know the type. Inevitably, the film rights will soon get scooped up, but a hugely successful book does not always translate to a hit film. For every Da Vinci Code, or The Help, there’ll be a Time Traveler’s Wife or Book Thief; underperforming adaptations that are soon forgotten. Honestly, I had thought that Fifty Shades of Grey, probably the strangest literary phenomenon in recent years, would fall into the latter category. Not just because any “erotic” novel is bound to be watered down for a mainstream film adaptation (especially in America), but it also looked like the interest may have been dying down 4 years after the book’s publication.
Well as we all know I was most definitely wrong on that one, this film’s already been an astonishing success at the box office (at the time of writing it’s the year’s highest earner so far). And really, that’s probably the only reason why I’m ultimately watching it. I remember a few years ago hearing from a couple of my (male) friends that they had read the book just to try and understand what it was about. That’s at least one area where it’s a lot easier to be a film fan than a book one, reading a novel, especially if you’re a slow reader like me, can eat up many hours of your life. This film’s only around two, and is likely to, for better or worse, be talked about as one of the key films of 2015.
There is one aspect in which I could be kind of pleased about the huge success of this film though. As little interest as I had in seeing this in particular, it does represent a certain kind of film that I, and I’m sure many other film fans will profess to want to see more of. That is: major studio produced dramas aimed squarely at adults, sold on their concepts rather than their stars. Not only that, it’s an all-too rare example of a Hollywood movie made by women, and primarily for women, so maybe we shouldn’t begrudge it its financial achievements too much.
On the other hand, this film is complete and utter crap.
Really, I’m left wondering now if the (famously poorly written) novel is just padded out with luridly detailed sex scenes, as there’s barely any story here at all. It simply follows the ridiculously named student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) as she gets a chance to interview handsome 27-year old self-made billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). He seems attracted to her, but he’s into bondage and wants her to literally sign a contract to be his submissive in a purely sexual relationship; “I don’t do romance” he states.
I can’t pretend that I don’t know Fifty Shades of Grey originated as a piece of Twilight fan fiction. That’s apparent in that it involves this male fantasy-figure being unnaturally attracted to a girl about whom he knows basically nothing, and whom has precious little personality at all in the first place. To be fair, Dakota Johnson does try and bring a little more to her that Kristen Stewart ever did, but she hasn’t got much to work with. The whole thing is thoroughly unconvincing, there’s no romance to be swept up in at all, not to mention Dornan being pretty dull opposite Johnson.
For a film being marketed on its sexiness, it’s also surprisingly vanilla is that department. The sex scenes are mostly of the standard soft-core type, cutting between close ups in shadowy lighting, with inoffensive slow pop music playing on the soundtrack. There’s nothing shocking here at all, even when they finally get around to implementing the bondage equipment (which is something like an hour into the film), it’s just a few blindfolds, the occasional mild spanking and wrists bound with ties. In terms of sex in mainstream films, Basic Instinct was far more ground-breaking, and that came out 23 years ago. I wonder if its tameness comes down from the studio, as director Sam Taylor-Johnson did contribute to hardcore anthology film Destricted back in 2006. Regardless, I can’t imagine how the millions of people flocking to see an erotic movie at the multiplex aren’t going to feel let down by this bland display. Also perhaps a bit surprising for a film supposedly aimed at women is that nearly all the nudity is from the leading lady.
As subdued and sparse as the sex is, it’s the rest of the film that drags Fifty Shades of Grey down to near unwatchable levels. The pacing is terrible, and the film so uneventful that it becomes incredibly boring very quickly. Nearly every exchange that takes place relates to whether or not she’ll sign his contract. I’d hoped there might be some unintentional comedy in there but there’s only one laugh to be found; when Anastasia honestly inquires as to what a ‘buttplug’ is (take a wild guess Ana!). From the sounds of things, it’s unlikely anyone could have made a good film from the book, but surely it didn’t have to be this tedious. Also noteworthy is that it ends on a completely abrupt and wholly unsatisfactory note; one that suddenly reminds you that this is supposed to be the first part of a trilogy. I for one, will not be watching any follow-ups.