Actors Jamie Dornan (L) and Dakota Johnson at a fan screening of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images
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More M&Ms than S&M: Fifty Shades of Grey is noxiously sweet – and totally blank

We can’t disparage these actors any more than we can blame a man in a hammerless world for failing to bang a nail into the wall.

Mindful of how E L James’s sadomasochistic love story Fifty Shades of Grey became a hit and then a phenomenon and finally a laughing-stock by word of mouth alone, Universal Pictures decided not to preview the film version to critics more than a few days in advance of its release. The studio wanted to give it to the fans first, which is awfully altruistic of them. Providing, that is, that the movie didn’t transpire to be the insult to cinema that the book is to literature. Whether it is a philosophical disquisition on baby oil (“From makeup remover to soothing balm for a spanked ass, who would have thought it was such a versatile liquid”) or the unerring eye for evocative detail (“The Mac laptop… has a very large screen”), nothing done in the book with crops and whips is half as painful as the humiliations visited upon the English language.

The achingly dramatic Fifty Shades of Grey trailer

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film version is neither as bad as it could have been nor as good as it needs to be. The source of the book’s wretchedness was its interior monologue (“Sitting beside me, he gently pulls my sweatpants down. Up and down like a whores’ drawers, my subconscious remarks bitterly”). So it was wise to announce visually the abandonment of that first-person perspective. The film begins with a shot that the book’s narrator, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), could not have witnessed: the billionaire businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) preparing for his morning run. He then heads to his office where Anastasia, a student, arrives to interview him for a magazine. His answers are laced with feeble innuendoes. “I exercise control over all things… I enjoy various physical pursuits… My tastes are very ‘singular’.” The Monty Python pervert played by Eric Idle (“nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more”) starts to resemble a character of Strindbergian complexity.

Each clue Christian gives Anastasia as they begin to spend time with one another is converted by her into a romantic challenge. He tells her he is bad, the wrong man for her, and she can only wonder at the enormity of his heart. The movie attempts a similarly self-defeating transformation. For all its bondage trappings, this is a noxiously sweet love story, more M&Ms than S&M. The camera strives for jeopardy and unease in its shots of Anastasia surrendering to Christian’s sexual demands. The soundtrack, dominated by slow-burning ballads with a disco pulse, tells a more reassuring story. The effect is similar to a “Danger! Keep Out!” sign daubed in smiley faces, or the “Not!” disclaimer made famous by Wayne’s World.

It is hard to know what is at stake in Fifty Shades of Grey. The grammar of its sex scenes is rudimentary and orthodox. A bead of sweat or a clinch not shot in immaculately-lit silhouette or a foot that didn’t arch in pleasure would be far more transgressive than anything kept in Christian’s pain room. Nudity is biased toward the female participant as usual. Even this movie would not countenance the cliché of sex on a shagpile carpet before a roaring fire, but it mints its own clichés. Christian always plays the piano after sex – it’s his equivalent of the post-coital cigarette. (Fans of the film may start to feel exhausted now whenever they hear a Steinway.) And though Anastasia’s choice description of enjoying her “very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle” is gone, she is shown nibbling the end of one of his company pencils. I only wish I’d read more Freud so that I could work out what was going on here.

The question of whether Johnson and Dornan are any good is impossible to answer. Theirs are not tactically blank performances of the sort given by, say, Keanu Reeves in The Matrix or Nina Hoss in Yella. They simply have no material to work with. His single character trait is that he has a dark secret. Hers is that she wants to know what it is. (She’ll have to wait for the sequels like everyone else.) We can’t disparage these actors any more than we can blame a man in a hammerless world for failing to bang a nail into the wall.

The movie isn’t exactly bad – merely empty. If you want unembarrassed frankness about sadomasochism, watch Barbet Schroeder’s splendidly nonplussed 1975 film Maitresse starring a loutish young Gerard Depardieu. If you want humour on the same subject, give Adam & the Ants’ “A Whip in My Valise” a spin for its daft rhymes (“I paid a packet/ For a new straitjacket”) and cheerful refrain (“Who taught you to torture?/ Who taught ’cha?”). And if you want a psychologically complex portrait of the hazards of falling in love with a damaged man, try this scene from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure:

Pee Wee: “There’s a lotta things about me you don’t know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn’t understand. Things you couldn’t understand. Things you shouldn’t understand.”

Dottie: “I don’t understand.”

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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