DIR: Sam Taylor-Johnson • WRI: Kelly Marcel • PRO: Dana Brunetti, Michael de Luca, E.L. James • DOP: Seamus McGarvey • ED: Lisa Gunning • MUS: Danny Elfman • DES: David Wasco • CAST: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson
When the first instalment of E.L. James’ concupiscent trilogy was thrust into the literary world in 2011, few could have predicted that despite its lascivious content and perceived glorification of sexual exploitation, the novels would go on to sell over 100 million copies worldwide. A vehement critical backlash however, deemed its substandard literary qualities more offensive than its erotic content, its low-cultural value merely providing pabulum for the gendered masses. Whilst the character of the submissive ingénue is hardly unfamiliar in literature or contemporary cinema (Steven Shainberg’s 2002 film Secretary based on Mary Gaitskill’s novel Bad Behaviour, springs to mind) the success of James’ novels has piqued such intense global interest in the film that its cultural significance cannot be underestimated.
Dakota Johnson stars as demure and diffident student Anastasia Steele who is sent to interview handsome publishing tycoon, Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) for the college newspaper. Despite having little in common, they are attracted to one another but Anastasia soon discovers that the brooding billionaire conducts his private life on the sexual fringe and that she is merely a conduit for his priapic fantasies.
Adapting the novel for the big screen, director Taylor-Johnson has had to navigate a high wire between its hard-core pornographic elements, its global popularity, criticism of its sexual violence and film as a profitable commercial venture. Attempting to strike a balance between all four, Taylor-Johnson focuses on the development of the emotional relationship between the protagonists rather than an exploration into the world of sadomasochism, which steers the source material’s narrative. As a result of such diluted text, the sexual content is pallid and restraint, neither sexy nor risqué. By moderating the driving force within the core narrative and littering the film with sexual metaphors in its place, leaves the film with very little in the way of plot development and it has simply nowhere to go.
It is left to Johnson and Dornan to rescue what they can from such sexual oblivion and whilst Johnson is a revelation as the innocuous student turned sexually curious mistress, Dornan struggles to connect with dual characteristics of Grey, failing to strike a balance between charismatic businessman and sadistic Dominant. The restructuring of the film’s narrative evidently hinders Dornan and while Anastasia Steele is emotionally more rounded, the psychologically complex Christian Grey is premised upon excess, domination and obsession and by moderating these characteristics, Anastasia’s desire for an impenetrable Grey becomes less plausible.
In spite of the unbalanced lead performances, the stylistic elements of the film complement the shameless absurdity of the plot and the polished production design exudes glamour and indulgence, underpinned by an erotically charged music score. The sophisticated production values fail however, to conceal the lack of chemistry between the lead characters and Dornan’s struggle to connect with an egregious script overwhelms any attempts by the film’s design to compensate for its nonsensical plot.
While the film is arguably no better or worse than its literary source, it does shatter the fantasies of sexual desire and sexual pleasure constructed within the novel. Fifty Shades of Grey is a book premised upon the attainment of sexual pleasure and fulfilment through the dark and sinister practices of sadomasochism. Subverting the very elements in which the narrative is structured upon and supplanting it with an anaemic love story brings a certain morality to the film that is absent in the novel and it is doubtful that Taylor Johnson’s film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey will satisfy even its most ardent fans.
18 (See IFCO for details)
Fifty Shades of Grey is released 13th February 2015