|Photo Credit: Fifty Shades of Grey / Universal Pictures|
BDSM billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) recruits a young virginal graduate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) into "his red room of pain", aka a sexual contract where she becomes his submissive. He has rules. If she follows them, he'll reward her. If she fails them, he'll punish her. A chance encounter sparks a torrid relationship between the two, one that leaves Ana questioning if she wants a relationship where pain is a part of the package and forces Christian to confront his emotional limitations.
Despite its reputation as an erotica and a relationship that's supposed to jump off of the page, the movie doesn't offer much in terms of an actual story. Ana meets Christian and is propositioned to be his submissive, but for reasons that are continuously glossed over (probably to save for the sequel), we just don't understand why they're attracted to each other. If the movie is trying to explore a young woman discovering her sexuality, Ana's struggle to decide whether or not to sign the contract comes in last to pushing and failing to break Christian out of his shell. And to be honest, as Grey, there's not much there in terms of actual brooding you'd want to know more about. In-between the awkwardly male-gaze sex romps, you just can't help but realize that in place of what could be an interesting romantic drama, the characters just go at it all the time because they can.
While there is no grand love story in the first film, it's admirable that this is not a straight-up porno. Though it has its fair share of inserting a sex scene just because there's a lot of them in the books, the erotica is still surprisingly tame. (Johnson physically bares so much more than Dornan, it makes one think: wasn't this supposed to be for female audiences?). Even if it's all there in terms of going at it like rabbits, the film is nowhere near the taboo adult world people can find and already enjoy online or the real world. So critics might imply that the sex was too safe, but a lack of gratuity set a refreshing pace for the never-ending honeymoon-mode lifestyle.
What ultimately saves the movie is how it translates the books, especially for the haters who ripped it apart for grammar and narrative issues. The movie aptly removes the ridiculous first person perspective of Steele invalidating herself with inner goddesses and forty sub-consciousnesses to elevate her as much as possible. And because the film relies on the headlining stars to make the story shine, credit for making Ana someone worthy to watch goes to Johnson who brings a smoky humor, sass, and confidence to a role that you didn't know had that capability to shine. And for Christian, though Dornan wasn't everyone's first pick, he manages to make Grey charismatic enough to wonder if there's more to him than meets the eye. Together, especially since Dornan was cast at the last minute, make a decent pair for what they have to work with.
No matter the creepy logistics that Grey continually shows up wherever Steele is, and every important conversation of getting to know each other is unevenly shelved for awkward sex scenes, director Sam Taylor-Johnson does her best with what she wanted to achieve. She manages to bring tangible aspects of the books to life through the cinematography, costume, production design, soundtrack, actors, etc. while a smarter tongue-in-cheek script can be found underneath a story that jumps all over the place. If you are a fan of the books, Taylor-Johnson makes it possible to want to watch the movie over and over, and I dare say, she gave the film more consideration than many probably would've. And her foundation is surely something the sequels will miss out on if she isn't there to helm Darker and Freed.
More than anything else Fifty Shades of Grey aims to please fans and author. Surely, hardcore fans will be satisfied with the results and the studios who scored on curious moviegoers. Everyone wins except for those who fall outside of those two circles. But to rise above its hostile criticism already, the film doesn't or can't strive to raise a bigger discussion about Ana and Christian's relationship. It skimps along the surface of its inspiration because if it delved too deeply into James's world, it could be one huge joke (an even bigger one to those who hate the series). What remains is a well-intended production trying as best as possible to get out of the grasp of the inner circle of the author and the mind-boggling success of her story.
For book fans: ★★☆
For me: ★¾☆
For everyone else: ☆☆☆