Fifty Shades of Grey concluded with the literal door closing in Christian's face and aspirations of making Ana his full submissive. But she leaves of her own free will (yay!!). Darker brings them back together after the tiniest of separations. Their relationship zips through to-be-determined phases as Ana makes demands of what she wants of her boyfriend. Her new boss becomes creepy and possessive. Christian's ex-sub Leila taunts them after suffering a mental breakdown. Kim Basinger appears as Christian's ex-dominant who simply can't let him go.
Author E.L. James and passionate readers would say the star-crossed lovers are focused on building a future together so nothing deters their love. Others recognize every conflict threatening to drive them apart are solved by convenience or sex.
If a young woman establishing her wants both in and out of the bedroom could be argued as the overall arc, it increasingly exists out of mere convenience. Christian's privilege may be a tantalizing fantasy for readers on the page, but it's an absolute hindrance on-screen. Even if Mr. Red Flags changes his nature over time, i.e. the dominant becomes the submissive, Ana's non-sexual wants (a job, independence, transparency) is muted in other ways. Every time Ana doesn't want to be bought, Christian counters with sex, money, a charity ball, moving in, marriage, to steal her attention away. Any issues the lovebirds encounter are frustratingly handled off-screen.
So the sequel ends up relying on, what else, sex to make up for a dubious romance. Shades of Grey barely earned an R-rating and sparked nude prejudice by displaying Johnson's breasts and bum in every frame but lacking to do so with her co-star at all. To fan and critics' disappointments, it didn't have Cinemax vibes and acted more like as a PBS special of how to tie knots around a bed banister.
Darker isn't much different. Dakota Johnson still displays more than she should, this time in a campier, male-gazey atmosphere. Where at least the first movie could make their hook-ups tolerable, Foley lacks the judgment to properly set a mood for kinkery, even the most vanilla kind, that doesn't conjure second-hand embarrassment.
If there is something to be had for Darker, it's all the best elements of the first movie - the cast and high expectations of production design, costume, and soundtrack.
Dakota can still make believe Ana is genuinely invested in giving Christian more chances to change - for whichever reason will still elude most. She gives a funny, honest, layered performance, carving something workable out of a cardboard stand-up. As well, Dornan isn't too far behind her becoming much more personable, even if the terms of their relationship is a hot mess. He's far more playful and relaxed, making the best of what he can. Their characters' relationship is the centerpiece, and with the pressures of getting the first film off the ground behind them, the duo has chemistry (I will go down with this ship). My default answer about the series is the cast and the production, and on those points, the movie didn't disappoint.
Established from the get-go by director Sam-Taylor Johnson, Fifty Shades' world remains visually elegant and sleek. Even with production and costume team changes, her influence remains with the opulent, minimalist sets and luxurious wardrobes. Even the soundtrack, initially kicked off with Beyonce, The Weekend and Ellie Goulding, is matched this time around with 'not being in love equates dying a thousand deaths' ballads by Sia, Taylor Swift with Zayn Malik, John Legend and Halsey. With the exception of a new avenue for the story to wander, Foley's imprint is nearly impotent.
Unlike most vanilla adaptations where the book rarely lives up to the movie or makes non-readers into fans, this falls right in line for whom the film is made: E.L. James, her devoted readers, and perhaps curious hound-dogs. But for all intents purposes, Fifty Shades Darker is posh enough to gawk at, but for all the sex critics clamored for and still didn't get, the story is still bound as a hot mess.
for readers: ★★★
for everyone else:☆☆☆