As a film, judged on its own and without any knowledge of what might be coming in the next two installments of this intended trilogy, "Fifty Shades of Grey" is a surprisingly, almost stringently feminist work. Unlike Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series, which centered on a teenage girl giving up all of her aspirations and values in exchange for a hot vampire, this more adult, fetishistic variation on the same general ideas and conflicts introduces virginal protagonist Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) to a carnal subculture she has never known, then gives her the voice to stand up for herself and her feelings. She is still objectified by the cameranote that there is plenty of female nudity on display but barely any malebut director Sam Taylor-Johnson (2010's "Nowhere Boy") recognizes that this is the whole point. As much as her kinky, ultimately damaged beau Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) might claim the contrary, he stubbornly clings to his own desires while treating her as property. Or, at least it is implied he is getting off. One can never be sure because the film is so tame and erotically limp, with every sex scene hastily rushing to a cheesy anticlimactic dissolve.
Based on the massively popular novel by E.L. James (the first in an erotica trio that have collectively sold over 100 million copies worldwide), "Fifty Shades of Grey" plays things frustratingly safe. For a high-profile adaptation of a book that is decidedly graphic in nature, it is all talk and ho-hum action, a conservative, almost Disneyfied portrait of sexual BDSM practices between one character who says he's turned on but never looks it and another who is humoring him but doesn't share his fixations. By neglecting a deeper exploration of this topic and not bothering to portray anything resembling abandon or pleasure from either participant, Taylor-Johnson drains her film of spontaneity and joy. Every frame is too pretty by a half, glaringly negotiated within an inch of its life by behind-the-scenes bureaucracy that allows neither actor, in its most sensitive scenes, to just let go.
When friend and roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) comes down with the flu, college student Anastasia is tasked with taking her place and interviewing 27-year-old billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey for the school's graduation newsletter. Their attraction to each other is immediate, but Ana doesn't bother entertaining the possibility there is something between them until he seeks her out, dropping into the hardware store where she works to pick up a variety of ropes, duct tape and cable ties. At first, Christian is a beacon of mixed signalshe tells her she should stay away from him even as he clearly wants nothing of the sortbut Ana's interest only grows. He warns her he is a man of very singular tasteshe is not into conventional romanceand before long he is introducing her to his "playroom" and negotiating a contract where she would agree to become his submissive. Ana likes him enough to be tempted, but as she falls further in love she is torn between satisfying him and yearning for an emotional intimacy he refuses to give her.
"Fifty Shades of Grey" is cursorily alluring for its first hour as Anastasia and Christian's relationship develops and she is gradually drawn into his proclivities of choice. A great deal of time revolves around them negotiating a terms of agreement document, another smaller portion delves into the possibility that the hardened Christian might be softening to this new, special, inexperienced woman in his life, and the rest plays like a bad soft-core drama on Cinemax complete with overtly stodgy choreography and slow-motion shots of flogging and feather-tickling. At a certain point, however, the narrative gives way to repetition and the realization sets in that the screenplay by Kelly Marcel (2013's decidedly more chaste "Saving Mr. Banks
") has nowhere to gonot in this first film, anyway. Waiting patiently for something genuinely sexy to happen is a lost cause; the movie does not dare be raw or uninhibited enough to exhibit true passion, and it doesn't help that the leads share chemistry that is tepid at best. Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, these two most certainly are not.
If Dakota Johnson (2014's "Need for Speed
") is mismatched with Jamie Dornan (2006's "Marie Antoinette
"), who replaced the more-fitting Charlie Hunnam right before filming began, that does not take away from her breakthrough performance. Giving Anastasia Steele a youthful, whip-smart exuberance, Johnson is by far the best thing this picture has going for it. Naturally beautiful though she is, the actress sells Ana's inexperience, naiveté and curiosity, finding humor as well as pathos in Ana's journey toward figuring out what she wants in a partner and how she prefers to be treated. As Christian Grey, who absurdly describes himself late in the movie as "fifty shades of fucked-up," Dornan lacks the irresistible, naughty, seductively masculine qualities his elusive yet powerful character should have. Simply put, he is miscast, and the steam that should be emanating from the screen every time these two are together is all but nonexistent. In a script that hardly has time for supporting players, Marcia Gay Harden (2014's "Magic in the Moonlight
") probably makes the most impression as Grace, Christian's refreshingly wealthy and
kind mothernot bad for what amounts to a thankless two-scene part.
When Anastasia asks Christian if he likes her the way she is, and he replies that he does, the question that follows speaks volumes: "Then why are you trying to change me?" Christian is hiding something dark from his past that tidily holds all the answers, but for now he isn't revealing what it is. "Fifty Shades of Grey" is sympathetic to Ana, and if there is a positive thing to say about the script it is that she is given the upper hand every step of the way. Even in her moments of submissiveness, she reacts as an average, free-thinking person would and does not hesitate to voice her opinions and concerns. What the movie does not provide her or Christian is an orgiastic release; for all of the sex games and punishment (and there really isn't that much to begin with), neither party is given the chance to show that they are getting anything out of it. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has a creative eyeshe and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (2014's "Godzilla
) have lensed a great-looking film, lovely in its capturing of overcast, fog-swept Northwest locationsand an effective ear for music (Annie Lennox's cover of "I Put a Spell on You," Beyoncé's sultry remix of "Crazy in Love," and The Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden" are indelibly used), but her restraint where it counts spells her undoing. "Fifty Shades of Grey" should be fun and frisky and, most of all, hot. Instead, it is a reserved, sanitized, overinflated downer, as sterile as Christian's sleek luxury penthouse.