Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Fifty Shades Of Grey is an erotic romance film released in 2015. It is an adaptation of the book of the same name by E.L. James. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, the film depicts a young college student who begins an unconventional romance with a successful businessman, one with unusual kinks that challenge her in unexpected ways. The film stars Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden. The film is the first part of the Fifty Shades trilogy, followed by 2017's Fifty Shades Darker and the final part Fifty Shades Freed in 2018. Like the original book, the film was a huge commercial success as it earned more than $569 million worldwide, but it was a flop with critics. It ended up 'winning' five of its six Razzie nominations, including Worst Film, although the song 'Earned It' by The Weeknd was nominated for an Academy Award as well.
What's It About?
Anastasia Steele is a young woman working her way through an English Literature degree at Washington State University while working at a DIY store in town. Asked to cover an interview on behalf of her unwell flatmate Kate, Anastasia travels to Seattle to question Kate's subject - twenty-seven year old billionaire Christian Grey - at the headquarters of his company. Unsure of herself and hugely intimidated by Christian, Ana fumbles her way through the interview for the student newspaper and is amazed when he hints that he wants to know her a bit more. After he turns up unexpectedly at her hardware store, Christian invites Ana to join him for a coffee and offers to conduct a photoshoot for the interview.
Ana realises that she has fallen for Christian but is shocked when he turns her down abruptly, declaring that he is not the one for her. He apologises to Ana by purchasing first-edition copies of Tess Of The D'Urbervilles but he is unable to get her off his mind. Eventually, they hook up and Christian slowly introduces her to his lifestyle - he is a sexual sadist obsessed with BDSM and invites Ana to join him as his submissive via a contract. Will Ana overcome her fears and follow her heart or will she realise that this is a bridge she cannot cross?
What's to Like?
It's often easy to kick a film as much maligned as Fifty Shades of Grey but it's important to look at things objectively. This is why I tend to review films after their initial release period (not because I'm too tight to pay for cinema tickets!) but sometimes, being critical is just unavoidable. I watched this film well aware of its bad reputation, determined to find something positive to say about this film. Hand on heart, the film's soundtrack is a good one and doesn't deserve to be tarnished with the same brush. The film also does a great job of mirroring the set design and style I imagined when I read the book - rooms are exquisitely furnished and the film manages to avoid the Frasier feel of being set in Seattle - not a single shot of the Space Needle in sight, outside of one of the trailers. It even rains, especially when characters are sad and the film needs to get that point across.
As for the much discussed casting of this most unusual of star-crossed lovers, Johnson does as well as she can as Ana. She has the lion's share of the nudity which is interesting to note in these post-Weinstein days and she's more plausible in the role than Dornan who is a bit of a disappointment. In truth, neither of them manage to convince us that they are playing real people and the whiff of soap opera hangs heavy over the film. But I guess that the film deserves some credit for treating the material in the correct manner - treating it like the soft-core porn disguised as a romantic fantasy the story actually is. Like the book, it's not particularly deep but it does a decent enough job of cramming everything in.
- Despite the content, many members of the BDSM community consider the film (and the book) offensive as it does not follow the typical standards of a safe and consensual relationship. They feel that the relationship as depicted is dangerous and also criticised the use of cable ties and riding crops as being unsuitable for such a relationship.
- The Fifty Shades trilogy started life as a piece of fan-fiction written by James that was inspired by Twilight and was originally called Master Of The Universe. Unusually for a first-time author, James was given a huge amount of control over the finished film including decisions on casting, rewriting much of Marcel's original screenplay and insisting on creative decisions that clashed with that of director Taylor-Johnson. This was cited as the reason she was replaced as director for the sequels.
- The film was banned in a number of countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Kenya, the UAE, Papua New Guinea, parts of Russia, India, Cambodia and Nigeria where it was banned after a week. The film was heavily censored in other parts of the world with a number of the sex scenes removed entirely.
- When Christian purchases items like rope and cable ties from Ana's hardware store, she jokes that he is now a complete serial killer to which Christian says "Not today." This is a reference to Dornan's role as serial killer Paul Spector in drama series The Fall and doesn't appear in the original book.
What's Not to Like?
It was always going to be a tough ask to make a good film out of bad source material but Fifty Shades of Grey falls well short of this noble task. The film replicates the book's toe-curling dialogue and awkward scene setting although, thankfully, Ana's "inner goddess" (which is mentioned no less than 115 times in the book and is the phrase used by Ana to refer to herself) makes no appearance in the film. But at no point do any of the characters feel like actual people - the most natural cast member is Mumford but she gets so little screen time that you'd forget she was in the thing. In fact, all of the supporting cast get sidelined in favour of Johnson and Dornan biting their lips and whipping each other. Rita Ora's much publicised appearance amounts to a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo.
Perhaps the film's biggest sin has nothing to do with leather harnesses but the fact that, at its core, this is mind-numbingly boring. The much-hyped sex scenes are poorly lit and nothing like as explicit as you may expect, much of the running time deals with the dilemma over whether Ana will sign a contract (oooh, exciting!) and when these two are fully clothed, the film feels like an overly stylish romance between two people with all the sexual chemistry of a beached whale. Nothing in this film feels realistic or believable so you never buy into this dull and predictable fantasy. Perhaps this will not be a problem if you're a sex-starved singleton or a menopausal middle-aged housewife craving some excitement but then again, why not just read the book? At least that way, you won't be embarrassed by everyone seeing you come out of a theatre or buying the DVD. Plus, when you break out into incredulous laughter at the nonsense you're reading, you can hide behind your book or e-book reader.
Should I Watch It?
If you like your films in an ironic sense and you agree with the concept of a film being 'so bad, it's good' then Fifty Shades of Grey will be right up your street. It's glacial pacing, risible dialogue, lack of chemistry, uninspired direction, laughable characters and ham-fisted understanding of its own world means that this film should be beaten with a whip if it wouldn't enjoy it so much. One day, we will get a genuinely erotic thriller that doesn't stink the place out but I'm afraid today is definitely not that day.
Great For: pause buttons, frustrated women everywhere, mocking anyone with this in their DVD collection, books sales
Not So Great For: accurately depicting BDSM, romantic couples, dispelling the amateurship reputation of fan fiction, anyone who hasn't stumbled across the sex scenes already online
What Else Should I Watch?
Things apparently don't improve over the sequels for the Fifty Shades series as none of the films managed to win over critics, although this didn't impact the earning potential that much. Fifty Shades Darker picks up the story and introduces more of a thriller element to proceedings as well as lowly revealing more about Christian's troubled past. Fifty Shades Freed is more of the same but fans weren't complaining as the series would push on to earn more than a billion dollars worldwide. With a prequel novel (and I use that word in the loosest sense) Grey being published which is more about Christian than Ana, those same fans will be waiting patiently for any future adaptation.
The thing about the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon is how many imitators it has inspired. And unfortunately, they still struggle to achieve any sort of critical acclaim as well - Polish rip-off 365 Days is an equally laughable erotic drama featuring a woman being kidnapped by a gangster and given a year to fall in love with him while a comedic parody, Fifty Shades Of Black, proved less funny than this film which was unintentional hilarious. Perhaps the best S&M film I've seen is the touching but unconventional Secretary which saw Maggie Gyllenhaal burst onto the scene as an young and naïve young woman who starts a job with her demanding boss, a closet sadist, and slowly adapts to his world - sounds familiar, right? Yes, it has scenes involving spanking and the like but at its heart, it's far more of a love story about two loners finding each other which is much more wholesome than this supposedly erotic rubbish.
Katherine "Kate" Kavanagh
Marcia Gay Harden
Dr Grace Trevelyan-Grey
Release Date (UK)
12th February, 2015
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Song ('Earned It')
Worst Actor (Dornan), Worst Actress (Johnson), Worst Screen Combo (Dornan & Johnson), Worst Screenplay, Worst Picture**
Razzie Award Nominations
© 2022 Benjamin Cox