Perhaps 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 was awfully altruistic. Provided, that is, the movie didn’t transpire to be the insult to cinema that the book is to literature. Nothing done in the novel with crops and whips is half as painful as the humiliations visited on the English language, whether it’s a philosophical disquisition on baby oil (“From make-up 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”).
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 whore’s 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.” 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 together is converted by her into a romantic challenge. When he tells her he is bad, the wrong man for her, 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&M’s 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 tale. The effect is similar to a “Danger! Keep out!” sign daubed with smiley faces.
It is hard to know what is at stake in Fifty Shades of Grey. The grammar of its sex scenes is rudimentary and orthodox. An embrace that wasn’t 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 towards the female participant, as usual. Even this film would not countenance the sight 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’s pencils. I only wish I’d read more Freud so that I could work out what was going on here.
It is impossible to answer the question of whether Johnson and Dornan are any good. Theirs are not tactically blank performances of the sort given by Keanu Reeves in The Matrix or Julianne Moore in Safe. 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. We can’t disparage these actors any more than we can blame a man in a hammer-less world for failing to bang a nail into the wall.
The film isn’t exactly bad – merely empty. If you want unembarrassed frankness about sadomasochism, watch Barbet Schroeder’s splendidly nonplussed 1975 film Maîtresse, starring a young Gérard Depardieu. If you want humour on the same subject, give Adam and the Ants’ “Whip in My Valise” a spin for its cheerful refrain (“Who taught you to torture?/Who taught ya?”). 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.”