Save yourselves, the book is better than the film. I thought the film would be much better because it was directed by Sam Taylor-Wood of Nowhere Boy, but alas, the film was much worse.
Fifty Shades of Grey opens predictably. There are lots of grey things – grey clouds, grey buildings, grey clothes. Dramatic music plays in the background as we watch Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) put on a shirt while standing in his walk-in wardrobe. Grey is super good-looking and also super rich. He is CEO of some firm named after him. Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) is a timid college student. She bats her eyelids a lot and wears floral blouses. Her housemate, Kate, works for the student paper and has an interview with Grey but is sick, so she sends Anastasia instead with a list of questions.
The meeting between Anastasia and Grey, which occurs in his office, is supposed to explode with sexual tension. It sort of did this in the book. It didn’t do this at all in the film. Anastasia sits down and looks confused. We see a shot of Grey’s desk and are able to admire the fact that he has a series of lead pencils lined up with his firm’s name on them. Why does the CEO only write in lead pencil? Did he never get his pen licence? I cannot recall this detail from the book, and I cannot understand the significance of it in the film. Perhaps it is symbolic of the fact that Anastasia is going to be able to change him. Much of the film revolves around Anastasia and Grey arguing about her signing a contract, presumably using a pen.
Anyway, back to the initial meeting. Anastasia has forgotten a pen because she is a battler (damsel in distress). She also can’t ask questions in a smooth way. Perhaps this is supposed to be because she is so turned on by Grey, so lovestruck, so discombobulated by his charm. If so, this was unconvincing, mostly because, despite being blessed with model good looks, Grey has as much charisma as a doorstop. We first met Dornan in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, where he had an appropriately minor role. Before that, we met him in an advertisement for Calvin Klein underwear. Throughout Fifty Shades of Grey, Dornan acts like he is still shooting that same advertisement.
At least Twilight had palpable sexual tension! There is no sexual tension at all between Anastasia and Grey. We see a lot of close-up shots of their faces. Grey’s face always looks the same because Dornan has one facial expression – frowning with his eyes slightly squinting as though he is trying to telepathically communicate with someone in a nearby room. Anastasia’s facial expressions change more regularly – she smiles, she looks coy, she cries.
The film is not good, but many scenes were particularly bad. In the book, much of the communication between Grey and Anastasia takes place over email. I was wondering how this would translate to the screen. It translates in a very literal way. The emails are shown in the top right-hand corner of the screen. They are on a grey background (Of course! Neat!) and the first email is at the top of the screen, then future emails are listed below them until we have a veritable stack of emails taking up the right-hand third of the screen. In a way, this was useful because Grey and Anastasia are better at flirting over email, and so this rather literal and experimental filmic technique actually contributed quite a lot to the few morsels of sexual chemistry the film offers. In terms of aesthetics, however, it was like being hit over the head with a brick.
The main issue I had with the film was that it was entirely unconvincing. This is because Dornan is so weird and abrupt as Grey that it becomes difficult to understand why Anastasia would stay with him. He doesn’t let her touch him and he refuses to share a bed with her. He doesn’t like to talk about his personal life. When she presses him he relents, but in a nonsensical way. While she is asleep, he comes into her room and says, “The woman that gave birth to me was a crack addict and a prostitute.” This is different to the book (and less concise), where he says, “The woman who brought me into this world was a crack whore.” Obviously Anastasia is asleep, so Grey’s past remains a moot point that is never discussed again.
At times, the film is humorous, though it is unclear to me whether this was intentional or not. There is a scene where we see a photograph of Grey and Anastasia in the local newspaper, and Anastasia has her mouth open and looks both uncomfortable and sultry at the same time. When this photo came on screen, the entire audience burst out laughing. The scene where Anastasia and Grey negotiate in an orange room is also pretty funny. They are sitting very far away from each other and suddenly they both have sushi rolls. When Anastasia says, “Cross out anal fisting,” the audience burst out laughing again. She says, “What are butt plugs?” and the audience again started laughing.
The sex scenes are done well. I was under the impression that 50% of the film would be sex scenes, but really there were only three sex scenes. As far as sex scenes go, they are unremarkable. They are like stock sex scenes with bells and whistles. I say they were done well because during them no one in the audience was laughing. Also, as in the book, there are many references to safe sex. It was novel to watch the characters tear open condom packets and discuss the oral contraceptive pill.
Just to reiterate, Fifty Shades of Grey is a terrible film. It was too long and too repetitive. Amazingly, the characterisation was even shallower than it was in the book, likely attributable to the fact Anastasia’s voice is sustained throughout the book while the film is told from an objective perspective. This is a pity. The loss of Anastasia’s perspective strips the film of any excitement. In the lacking of an engaging subjectivity, the narrative of sexual awakening falls flat.
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