I would like to say that I was blindfolded and dragged, handcuffed, to the opening of Fifty Shades of Grey by my woman friend. But that would be wrong.
Though I did not actually read the original and very popular BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadomasochism) novel by the same name, I was caught up with the Hollywood hype about the film. Who would be cast as the virginal Anastasia and the dangerously handsome Christian Grey? And, of course, how would the supposedly erotic dominance/submissive content be portrayed?
So, truth be told, I was the one who begged my woman friend to attend a viewing of Fifty Shades. She, in turn, was not that interested. She is very literary and intelligent, and had read the book during a business flight. Though she admitted to being mildly titillated by the BDSM sex scenes, she thought the film would be, like the book, a woman’s sex fantasy film. In other words, a pseudo-romantic chick flick with flogging, bonds, nudity, and stilted dialogue. Which, I must confess, all work for me.
Upon entering the suburban theatre for the afternoon show, my friend’s estimation of the film’s appeal was bang on. The theatre was packed with about a hundred excited women of all ages. Some clutched their well-read copies of the book. A few sheepish men were also in attendance. (I told you my woman friend was whip smart.)
Overall, the film itself was enjoyable and will do well in both domestic and foreign box offices, but it had serious flaws. Flaws I would like to nail down.
But first: the positives.
I really liked Dakota Johnson, who played the sweet college lit major—virginal but ultimately strong-willed—Anastasia Steele, the object of Christian Grey’s steely interests.
Dakota is the daughter of actor’s Don Johnson (I loved him as the sexy, wild, white-suited and sockless drug detective in Miami Vice) and Melanie Griffith (the crazy chick in Something Wild, and porn actress in both Body Double and Working Girl). Dakota comes by her free-wheeling, bosom-baring role very naturally. It is clearly in her genes … or lack thereof.
I feel I must warn you: before you see this flick, you will have to suspend your disbelief … from the highest tree.
Long-haired, smart, and great-looking Ana, is a twenty-two-year-old college senior and virgin? Not very likely, in my opinion. Putting that aside, Johnson as Ana is very believable as an independent, strong-willed woman who attracts the billionaire Grey yet retains her strong sense of self.
I understand the film is a bit more humorous than the actual novel. And Johnson has some of the best lines. When Christian is about to introduce Ana to the infamous Red Room (the room with the whips, chains, handcuffs, and other BDSM paraphernalia), Christian refers to said area as his “playroom.” To which Ana quickly queries, “is this where you keep your Xbox?”
Though the film as a whole is not very memorable, some of the sex scenes were fairly erotic at the time of viewing. Yet upon reflection, they were a bit too wholesome and sweet for my tastes. (Like Christian, my tastes are very singular.)
I don’t want to give away the best parts of the film (or of Johnson’s anatomy), but Christian’s first deflowering of Ana had its moments. Christian, with an ice cube in his mouth, running it slowly down a blindfolded, supine, and tied-up Ana’s bare chest to her navel was pretty hot.
On one level, Jamie Dornan—the Armani underwear model/actor—was adequate as the handsome, wealthy, smart, articulate, but emotionally distant twenty-seven-year-old billionaire Christian Steele. What woman wouldn’t be attracted to a billionaire who owns his own company? With his name emblazoned on his own skyscraper and a sumptuous office with tons of models running around as his assistants, not to mention a massive penthouse suite that overlooks the Seattle skyline and owning his own helicopter and a fleet of sports cars, what’s not to like?
Even the standoffish and independent Elizabeth Bennett was attracted to Mr. Darcy’s palatial country estate.
But as my woman friend astutely observed, Dornan was miscast. He is too pretty, too GQ. The role of Christian Steele called for a powerful, dominant, and potentially dangerous man who was clearly older than Ana. At times throughout the film, Ana and Christian reminded me of a Radcliffe senior and her Harvard B School beau bickering over a latte in Harvard Square.
Rather, Christian Steele should have been portrayed by an actor who was strong, tough, and dangerous, with unconventional good looks. Charming, but with a killer instinct. In other words, more like a young, disturbing Mickey Rourke pushing Kim Basinger’s sexual boundaries in 9 ½ Weeks. Released in 1986, the film is still considered one of the most erotic and sexually charged to be made in the last fifty years. I urge you to compare this film’s hot ice-cube scene (for your viewing pleasure) with the much tamer and less memorable ice-cube scene in Fifty Shades.
Another negative observation? Grey’s scary Red Room isn’t that scary.
Some of the most important scenes take place in Christian’s playroom, the Red Room of pleasure and pain. It is a very large and brightly lit sterile room, chock full of whips, belts, chains, handcuffs, benches, tables, and steel hanging apparatus. A potpourri of bondage tchotchkes or knick knacks. Upon entering this room of horrors, Ana, a bit scared and curious, breathes deeply. Frankly, to me, this was as about as scary as the weight room at my local gym. And not as intimidating. This pleasure/pain palace should have been darker, smaller, creepier, and dirtier—both physically and psychologically.
The penultimate scene is when Ana, frustrated by Christian’s emotional distance, pushes him to show his real dark side, to punish her. Christian then orders Ana to lie face down on a bench as he whips her six times, apparently on the buttocks though the actual flogging on the bare flesh is unseen. Ana counts out loud each blow and cries out in pain.
The problem with this scene, as with most of the film, is that the film fails on its own terms.
This scene is supposed to be disturbing and brutal, but it is neither. Christian, as portrayed by Dornan, is a wuss. His forehand and backhand flogging is weak and limp-wristed. My forehand smash in ping pong is more powerful.
Here is where the director and Dornan as an actor fail miserably. As Christina is whipping Ana, his face is emotionless. Is he turned on? Is he expressing some inner darkness based upon his unhappy childhood? Or is he ashamed at what he is doing? What are his demons, if any? Christian has a need to punish and beat Ana, but why?
So many questions. But there are no answers. And the film literally peters out and ends limply after that scene.
My woman friend advised me that one of the high points of the book is the self-revelation by Ana that though she has submitted to Christian’s will, she ultimately realizes, paradoxically, that she is in control of the situation and of Christian.
There are hints of this interplay of dominance and submission through the back and forth between the characters, but there is no cathartic revelation for either party. Which is too bad for all concerned—the actors and the audience.
Ironically, by the director and actors in Fifty Shades pulling their punches (on the floggings, bondage, and disturbing and dangerous behavior), they made the film more mainstream, more palatable, and probably more massively popular. But definitely less memorable and noteworthy.
I doubt, thirty years from now, we will remember this film as we remember the more memorable and better crafted 9 ½ Weeks … or one of the most disturbing bondage and sadism films in history, The Story of O (1975).