Ever since the film adaptation of E.L. James’ phenomenon was announced, two vocal camps have been chomping at the bit to get sight of it. On one side sit the fanatics, laying into any decision that doesn’t align with their reading of the novel. Opposite are the cynics waiting eagerly with knives out. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film is undeserving of either. An extremely enjoyable tongue-in cheek first half defies expectations before lacklustre and asexual romance takes over.
Casting sparked the initial controversy with one actor allegedly pulling out due to the level of rabid attention on the role. As seemingly innocent Anastasia Steele, the University student who catches the eye of 27 year old billionaire Christian Grey, Dakota Johnson does a sufficient job. She relies heavily on the Kristen Stewart lip-biting school of acting, but there’s a forthright intensity in her performance. The same cannot be said for Jamie Dornan. With permanently dead eyes, he fails to smoulder, though there are a couple of occasions when he at least perspires.
This first film in a planned trilogy centres on their blossoming romance as he tries to tempt her into a submissive sexual relationship and she tries to convince him to give traditional love a shot. When the screenplay focusses on this battle, the film slides rapidly downhill. Before then, as they circle each other after meeting at a student interview, it’s delightfully good fun. Playing as a parody of vapid romance, every conversation is full of ridiculous statements. It’s a film where the main beau can inform the object of his desire that he won’t touch her until he has written consent, and then promptly produces a contract. Later, after they first sleep together, she awakes to find him sat playing the piano in the dark.
Saving the damsel in distress provides the highlight of the film, especially when the distress consists entirely of mild intoxication in a safe environment. Grey still comes steaming in, leading to a first kiss and more importantly, the first of many occasions when he takes his (and her) top off. After she’s thrown up on his shoes of course.
By this stage though, the good times are nearly up. As the two grow closer, the narrative switches to Grey’s room of pain, packed with various bondage tools, and the contract he wants her to sign that would see her become the submissive to his dominant. The light-hearted tone disappears, replaced with a middling psychological potboiler as Anastasia probes away at the trauma that makes Grey live his life in this fashion.
But what about the sex scenes, the cause of many a rumour in recent months? They’re all disappointingly mechanical. With soft pop playing over the top, its department store summer catalogue erotica. A bit of flesh appears, mostly Johnson’s it must be said, coupled with moaning and impassioned whispering. Beyond that, nothing. Each scene has been so diligently cut and framed, it’s sucked all life out.
What happens next is a question for another day, as the sudden and very poor ending makes abundantly clear. Hopefully the second in the series can rediscover the early humour, or at the very least inject a little sex appeal, especially given the sheer amount of time devoted to the act. Following the trend in Fifty Shades of Grey, don’t count on it.
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Writers: Kelly Marcel (screenplay), E.L. James (novel)
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle
Runtime: 125 min