DIR: James Foley • WRI: Niall Leonard • PRO: Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, E.L. James, Marcus Viscidi • DOP: John Schwartzman • ED: Richard Francis-Bruce • DES: Nelson Coates • MUS: Danny Elfman • CAST: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Tyler Hoechlin
Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) was both a pleasant surprise and a let-down. Kelly Marcel’s script managed to smooth the passage of novelist E. L. James’ trite plotting and tin-eared dialogue, while Taylor-Johnson gave the thing a certain elegance of tone. Dakota Johnson’s witty turn elevated the material to such a degree that it would have made her a bona fide star if she’d had anything better to work with. The downside was a bizarrely incurious approach to James’ toxic conflation of economic privilege with sexual mastery, although it would have been forgivable if the whole affair hadn’t been torpedoed by a stolid turn from Jamie Dornan, a last minute replacement for Charlie Hunnam, whose every move reeked of not wanting to be there. Taylor-Johnson also showed a saddening disinterest in camp, despite opening her film with Annie Lennox singing “I Put a Spell on You”, and casting Marcia Gay Harden as a high society matriarch.
Fifty Shades Darker is a different kind of surprise, and a different kind of let-down. It follows through on its promise of being trashier than Taylor-Johnson’s effort – but in all the wrong ways. That James has fully wrested control of the property after her much-publicised clashes with Taylor-Johnson is evident in that the script for this instalment is the work of Niall Leonard, an occasional writer for British television who also happens to be her husband. Those who felt short-changed by Marcel’s gutting of James’ flatulent prose style will be relieved to learn that Leonard has lovingly preserved its persistent air of blithe inanity. Directorial duties, meanwhile, have now been assumed by journeyman hack James Foley, whose coruscating Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) seems a very long time ago.
The film has no plot, in any meaningful sense of the word. It’s a story only in so far as it begins, various things happen, and then it ends. These things involve a couple of spats between quickly reunited lovers Anastasia (Johnson) and Christian (Dornan), a wedding proposal that is inexplicably accepted no less than three times, a remarkably desultory episode involving a jilted stalker named Leila (Bella Heathcote), and a helicopter accident so blissfully unconnected to everything else that it feels like it’s been spliced in from a different film. To call it soap opera would be an insult to the form. There’s no drama, let alone melodrama.
Obviously, a nonsensical plot would be forgivable if the film worked as erotica, but there’s a rather low quotient of sex, and what’s on screen isn’t going to steam up anybody’s spectacles. Curiously, the oft-touted “female perspective” of the franchise is little in evidence here, as Foley offers so many lingering close-ups of Johnson’s breasts being fondled, lathered, or oiled – and films Dornan so unflatteringly throughout – that one wonders whether he knows his audience at all. The promise of sexual novelty also goes laughably unfulfilled. A scene of Christian producing a nipple clamp only to demonstrate it on a fingertip and put it back in a drawer fairly sums up the proceedings, although the apotheosis of sexual cluelessness is actually reached early on, when cunnilingus is described as “kinky f***age”, as if it’s something practiced only by advanced disciples of the Marquis De Sade, as opposed to, you know, most people concerned with female pleasure.
That the film’s sexual politics are laughable needn’t necessarily be a problem. The problem is that they’re laughable and depressing. This correspondent wondered at the original’s inadvertent similarity to Pasolini’s Salo in its interweaving of economic and sexual power (albeit one presented without critique). That noxious trope is repeated here, ad nauseam, with a side-serving of good old fashioned sexism to boot. At one point, Anastasia is harassed by her sleazy boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) – mainly so that she can realise the error of her ways after Christian balks at the idea of her having a job. Later, when Christian “subdues” the deranged Leila by dehumanising and humiliating her, Anastasia suffers a pang of conscience not because Christian persistently treats women abhorrently, but because she is afraid that she will not be able to satisfy a man who is accustomed to getting “so much” from his lovers/slaves/purchases.
After valiantly wrestling with the material in the first instalment, Johnson seems to have all but thrown in the towel here. She looks bored because she’s too good for this nonsense – and she is. Dornan, by contrast, looks bored because he thinks he’s too good for it – and he isn’t. That he is deeply uncomfortable in this role has been apparent since the beginning, but given how much of his part here involves basic functions like walking and standing, it’s mystifying how he manages to be a damp squib in every single frame in which he appears. His taciturn press junket appearances may have become the stuff of legend, but given that people will be paying to see this film (although likely in smaller numbers than had initially been projected), it seems downright churlish to be all but somnambulant on screen.
All this grey does have a silver lining, though, and her name is Kim Basinger. The veteran star makes hay with the role of Elena Lincoln, jealous deflowerer of the adolescent Christian – no mean feat when one considers that an endless montage of Anastasia walking the streets to a Sia power ballad takes up more screen-time than her entire performance. There is one, and only one, moment of genuine excitement in Fifty Shades Darker, and it has nothing to do with Anastasia or Christian. When Basinger and Harden get down to a face-slapping, napkin-flicking stand-off, Fifty Shades Darker delivers a moment of pleasure that no nipple clamp could ever eclipse. These two broads know where it’s at. If we absolutely must have more of this Fifty Shades guff every Valentine’s Day, is it too much to ask that they be given a fair crack of the whip next time around?
18 See IFCO for details
Fifty Shades Darker is released 10th February 2017