In a shocking turn of events, the sex scenes are actually some of the best acted and least problematic portions of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Released on Feb. 13, the highly-anticipated and hotly-contested film adaptation of E.L. James’ bestselling novel by the same name is surprisingly worse than expected. Still, grossing over $94.4 million in its opening weekend, the film follows the evolution of the relationship between innocent English major Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, Need for Speed) and the controlling and abusive billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, The Fall).
Prior to the movie’s release, there was a wealth of conversation surrounding both the book and the film. Often this dialogue focused on the problematic use of BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission and Sadism/Masochism) practices to mask the otherwise abusive undertones in the relationship. While the movie provides an opportunity for the producers to deviate from canon and remove some of the more troubling behavior, if anything the movie instead magnifies everything wrong between Christian and Anastasia.
Absent from the film is a transitional sex scene showcasing Anastasia’s more gentle introduction to BDSM, as well as any and all of the physical and emotional aftercare following any intense sex or punishment. What this leaves is a movie that shows the relationship for what it is: abuse.
Grey steals Anastasia’s personal information, randomly shows up at her place of work and aggressively interrogates Steele about every single man in her life, all before the pair even goes on their first date. Beyond that, Grey isolates Steele from her friends and family, compensates for a lack of emotion through expensive gifts and continually attempts to coerce Anastasia into things she isn’t ready for.
For example, during the “contract negotiation” scene in Grey’s office, Steele rejects Grey’s advances. Rather than respecting her wishes, he cites her “arousal” as her body effectively consenting for her. In the theater, other patrons could be heard making sounds of encouragement and anticipation when Grey continued to push Steele, mistaking blatant coercion for harmless flirting. It cannot be stressed enough that arousal is not consent, and this scene is only one of the problematic behaviors the book and consequently the movie appears to normalize.
The only reason why such action is “allowed” to happen is because of the forbidden attractiveness of Dornan. At the sight of his sharp jawline and chiseled abs, some viewers fall into a lusty haze, allowing them to overlook all of Grey’s problematic behaviors. Had someone like Jack Black, Charlie Sheen or Danny DeVito been cast as Grey, the creepiness of the movie would be unquestionable, but the strategic use of common female insecurities and a traditionally attractive male lead blinds some of the audience.
Unfortunately, Dornan’s pretty face is about the only positive casting choice made for the film, as all of the acting is mediocre at best. Dornan’s answer for “emotionally unavailable” appears to be an emotionless sociopath, who is eerily similar to Paul Spector, the serial killing rapist he plays in The Fall.
Johnson’s acting is not much better, as her answer for unspoken sexual attraction is an expression akin to that of someone permanently on the verge of orgasm. The source material does not give either actor much to go on, but nuanced emotions are often overplayed and onscreen chemistry is effectively non-existent. This mistake could have been over looked if the film was of the action or horror genre, but as a movie that focuses solely on a relationship, the shortcoming is unforgivable.
Most surprising is that the only real glimpses of chemistry are seen during the sex scenes. With the absence of the “inner goddess” (Anastasia’s inner dialogue in the book), the scenes came off as easy to watch, rather than as eyebleedingly painful to read. It is also only during these times that Dornan seems to show any form of emotion, and while this often reads as hunger (rather than sexual desire), it is an improvement upon the blank or angered faces he sports during the rest of the film.
Additionally, the movie does not shy away from some of the “kinkier” aspects of the book. Johnson is actually cropped, and a multi-tailed flogger is used. Dornan also appears to be attempting to keep his technique as authentic as possible, a refreshing change from the inaccurate portrayal of BDSM seen in the rest of the film.
All of this being said, Fifty Shades of Grey is successful at one thing: portraying poorly-written fanfiction by a horny, desperate and clueless middle-aged woman about an emotionally abusive relationship from a teen novel. For those out there contemplating wasting their time watching this film, don’t; there are racier, better-acted and less problematic cleaning commercials with more onscreen chemistry and sexual tension than this film.
Our Take: 0.5/5