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It is impossible to review the film adaptation of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey without reference to its position in culture. Like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Stephanie Myer’s Twilight, a literary phenomenon is quickly hammered into a film while the public interest in the text remains, resulting in a perfunctory telling of a story that has a readymade audience.
Fifty Shades also has the added draw card of being ‘taboo’. The key dramatic tension in the film is whether our hero, college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), will sign a contract that would make her the sexual submissive in an on-going BDSM relationship with abrupt billionaire, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).
The series of novels achieved diverse and extreme reactions; some praised it for making this alternative sexual lifestyle accessible and engaging to a broad audience. Some slammed the novels for their lack of literary merit, others for their simplistic or offensive depiction of BDSM and for the scenes in which Anastasia does not consent to the sexual activity that occurs. In the week preceding its, feminist organisations and social conservative lobby group Family First both called for a boycott of the film, citing the way the book treats women and sexual violence.
With this background in mind, I sat down in an afternoon session of the film and prepared myself for a shocking two hours. But the loudest gasp of those hours came before the film had even started: my fellow cinema-goers seemed extremely keen on a trailer for Pitch Perfect 2.
In many ways Fifty Shades of Grey has a very traditional plot: a young girl who is pure and good (read: virginal) must choose how far she will go in order to be with a man who is hot and troubled. This is Grease. This is Twilight. No, really, this IS Twilight. E.L. James first started writing these stories as fan fiction for that series, and the main characters are only slight variations on Bella and Edward.
Both leads do an admirable job with their paper-thin characters and a script absent of all subtlety. Johnson is really quite funny, and without this humour the film would be a struggle. Dornan is dashing but can’t really save the fact that his character is innately unrelatable.
His behaviour is manipulative and borders on abusive. His desire for dominance over Steele goes much further than the bedroom: he is constantly trying to tell her what to do and punish her for breaching his rules. He lacks the good heart of other literary romantic curmudgeons like Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, which makes it hard to understand why Steele wants to be with him. He wants her to engage in this very extreme and specific type of relationship when she really just wants a nice normal romance. I can understand why the BDSM community would not be pleased with this portrayal, as Grey’s sexual preferences are shown to be directly related to his childhood trauma.
The sex scenes are moderately graphic but not at all erotic, and BDSM is talked about much more than it is shown. The subject matter of the film is fairly unique, and I found the idea of the contract as the ‘tension point’ engaging, but there are far more interesting films about sex, power and violence, such as Steven Shainberg’s Secretary or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
This is a difficult film to review because it is not really very cinematic. The cinematography is unremarkable and the film’s grey colour palette is as unsubtle as the script. I did enjoy the music, especially the multiple Beyoncé tracks. Fifty Shades of Grey is a middling film that people will see to be part of the conversation about it. It is a shame that the film couldn’t speak more for itself.