Tuesday 17 February 2015

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

Year: 2015

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Screenplay: Kelly Marcel

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dorman

The Fifty Shades of Grey feature film arrives amidst massive hype, awkward promos and in-house fighting between the film’s director and the book's writer. Such fighting appears to be common with adaptation, but as Director Michael Haneke states in an interview about his 2000 psychosexual drama The Piano Teacher (and I paraphrase):

“You must be glad if you translate a third of the content as you can’t convey the richness of a novel which is 300 pages long.”

From what I’ve read of Fifty Shades, it seems clear that there’s little penetration (snigger) or richness to be found, with E.L James’ lead character, Anastasia Steele feeling like an awkward mixture of Mills & Boon and Robin from the 60’s Batman series. As a book, 50 Shades gives hope to crummy writers in that, however naff your writing can be, there’s still a chance you can make a bucket load of money (there’s hope for me yet).

Originally based on a piece of Twilight fan fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey, was originally described as “Mommy Porn” and while Sam Taylor Johnson’s cinematic adaptation may only really help compound such descriptions with its vanilla sex and antiqued gender views, I found it difficult not to admire its stylish production and knowing wit at certain points. It is taking on a film with no real richness to speak of, yet it’s at times, a slyer film than those who have been quick to debunk it say (several people react venomously to it while knowing very little). It's a film that's seeking a crowd of people who are asking for adult drama with a certain amount of titillation and of course escapism.

It’s a film that seems to acknowledge its sparkly vampire roots, opening to an ever-grey Seattle, which not only alludes to the looming shadow of one Mr Grey but also reminds us of Bella Swan’s Forks. Fifty Shades amusingly never really escapes the Twilight shadow, despite its adult leanings. It’s easy to see the similarities between the main couples in each of the first film entries. However, Johnson’s film feels far more playful with the material. The moment after Anastasia Steele leaves her first meeting with Christen Grey all hot and flustered, the heavens open outside and give her a cold shower. Dakota Johnson’s breathy performance has garnered a mixed response and yet it seems clear that both director and actress are aiming for a more pithy representation of the awkward inner monologue that features in the book. Hell, the film features the ludicrous close-ups of Anastasia nibbling on company pencils with the word Grey on them. So often the film understands what type of movie it really should be.

Frustratingly, the film’s source material hampers much of the playfulness. The character of Christian Grey is a manic pixie dream guy. Not only successful, talented and knowledgeable in nearly everything he touches (including her "sex"), but fantastically sculpted, and generically handsome. Anastasia’s sexual naivety is made to look even more dubious (in 2015) by the sheer fact that the two are so instantly compatible in bed. He is the type of guy that the fedora-wearing meninists can't stand. Wish fulfilment? Yes, but the plot’s explanation of Christian’s main flaw (which is dreadfully cliché and inaccurate when looked at along with his sexual preference) never gives us true insight. His manipulation of Anastasia through material goods and sex is displayed far more like perks than flaws. Only the agency and fightback of Anastasia’s character claws back some balance, although much like Bella Swan, all it takes is the raw sexual magnetism of Mr Grey to cloud her judgement. Both lead character’s goals in reality could easily be considered dangerous. The BDSM aspect doesn’t even need to come into it. Although the nativity and treatment of the material render this element flaccid anyway. Such an uneven portrayal fails the drama substantially.

Fifty Shades the film helps destroy some of the naff writing that came with the book and yet it still suffers from dubious dialogue, naïve views of relationships and sexuality, as well as general awareness. This man is so rich and has a certain amount of fame around him and yet he manages to slip in and out of clubs like a ninja with no one noticing him. After the first time Christian and Anastasia have sex, to see him playing the piano like such a tragic haunted phantom is more laughable than emotional. Jamie Dorman does his best to make Christian a restrained and controlling figure, but unlike his impressive abs, he has a character which lacks any real definition. Anastasia drives the narrative throughout and yet her need to change Grey is the kind of thing that's been making both men and women sick for years.

Yet the film is gorgeous to look at (shot by The Avengers' Seamus McGarvey), and the performances often hold more chemistry than the net gossip and early reviews suggested. Although the sex itself is mechanical and stiff it at least suggests female pleasure more than male. I do feel there’s a certain amount of female gaze at play over the more typical male.

The biggest problem with a film like this is there are not enough decent female-led and female-driven features, not enough decent Western films dealing with sexuality and not enough mainstream movies interested in outright adult situations. There needs to be more films with similar material to make our basic appreciation of cinematic sex and romance stronger. To see a more effective look at the role of BDSM and sexual power play, you would have to go back at least 13 years to 2002's indie feature Secretary. Foreign features such as the aforementioned The Piano Teacher are still light years ahead in digging into the complexity of material such as this. David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1984) dealt well with the idea of such transgressive sexuality having a corrosive edge, but that's as old as me. That said, I have to say I'm fascinated that the film looks set to be one of the biggest 18-rated films dealing with such material, coming from a female perspective. Along with Gone Girl (2014), it’s clear that a certain type of adult-orientated fare is desperately being asked for and yet is only being nurtured through quite narrow channels. 

It's best to remember that there will be many who are seeking this film out who will be able to remove the right amount of reality and will be able to enjoy the fantasy. The more complicated talk about the male character's abuse and manipulation is important, but ineffectual to a certain crowd who will be able to paraphrase the infamous tagline from Last House on the Left (it’s only a movie) to enjoy the film. I feel this is important, as many people's abrupt disregard for other people’s enjoyment of something like this not only spurs the hype machine on but also illustrates a massive gulf of why people sought out and found enjoyment of the text. As bad as the book’s writing is, and as uneven as the film shows itself, if we as an audience were more willing to embrace adult situations within our entertainment, and hold up a more female-driven fare, Fifty Shades would have more likely been a footnote rather than a landmark. 

Fifty Shades of Gray will in no way enter my list of favourites of the year. It's simply not that great a film. But no doubt the money made and the reactions garnered, in a climate which is consistently infantilizing its entertainment, shows to me that the film is possibly one of the most important entries of the cinematic calendar. Fifty Shades does enough to translate a third of the content of the book and while there's no richness of the source itself, there is a certain amount of the devil in the details.