Ever since E.L. James created the character of Christian Grey, women around the world have dreamed (literally, I’m reliably told by some girlfriends) of this exceedingly handsome, mysterious, ultra-rich man with a dark ‘secret’. Now, hundreds of thousands of women will have the chance to see if fantasy and reality (as far as it’s represented on a big screen) will match up.
Admittedly, I have been rather biased against the film from the start, having read the books with ever-increasing rolling of the eyes as the story progressed (which is very little). I find the protagonist, Anastasia Steele, to be one of the most insipid and annoying characters I have ever come across. Actress Dakota Johnson makes Ana only slightly better in the film: the soft, wispy voice, the girly giggles, and the constant attempts to stretch her blue eyes into a Margaret Keane painting chafed my brain.
For those who haven’t read the books, here is a quick run-down of the plot. I have always argued the 50 Shades series is nothing more than vamped up Danielle Steele. English literature student, Anastasia, is sent to interview businessman, Christian, for the university newspaper. It happens by chance only, as Ana’s roommate is ill and can’t do the interview herself. Dressed like a schoolgirl (one of many clichés) Ana literally falls into Christian’s office and conducts an interview that not even a journalism intern could bungle more. But Christian is intrigued by the bumbling Ana and starts aggressively pursuing her, only to push her away some days later, saying she should stay away from him.
Of course, that doesn’t happen. Christian sweeps Ana off her feet, literally, when she reveals she’s a virgin, saying he would like to “rectify” the situation. The two embark on an usual relationship, as Christian shows Ana his ‘dark side’: a predilection for sadomasochistic sex. Like any softcore porn film, his “playroom” has red, plush walls and a vast array of toys: whips, cuffs, rope and some contraptions I admit I don’t know the names of (the unnamed contraptions are never used so I had no opportunity to learn anything useful there).
But Ana isn’t sure if she really wants a relationship where there is little romance but lots of sex, in which she is the submissive i.e. the one being “punished” or hurt in the S&M scenario. Can she accept a man who describes himself as “50 shades of fucked-up”?
The camera work is unoriginal, with consistent focus on parts of the body that could suggest a build up to sex: close ups of hands around coffee cups, bare necks, and Ana’s annoying habit of biting her lower lip (which Christian obviously finds irresistible).
But of course, you’re probably reading this review to hear about the sex. Those feverish fans who’ve read the book will likely be disappointed. The sex is watered down quite a bit, so the film is only a little soft porn-ish. Of course, there is no argument that Irish actor Jamie Dornan is a smouldering Christian Grey and seeing him without clothes is not an un-fun experience. There is no full frontal nudity for him though (the Guardian’s reviewer was speculating whether the director knows there exists such a thing as a penis or whether Christian Grey perhaps doesn’t have one). As is usual with sex scenes there is more female frontal nudity, so one leaves the cinema feeling pretty familiar with almost all of Dakota Johnson’s body and acquainted with Dornan’s glutes and six-pack. As for the sadomasochism that caused such an “oh-my” stir when the books were published… a few spankings (once or twice involving a whip), some handcuffs, rope, silk blindfolds, and “oohs” and “aahs” from Ana, and there you have it. It’s more a ‘nice’ naughty than erotic.
There also appears to be serious lack of on-screen chemistry between Dornan and Johnson so it’s uncertain whether there will be a second and third film. This movie ends like the first book does: with no resolution, paving the way for two more rehashes featuring exasperating Ana Steele and more dressed up, formulaic S&M sex.
The music is by far the best part of the film, although I would object to the use of the obvious “I put a spell on you” (performed by Annie Lennox) for the opening scenes, before Ana meets Christian. Some of Jessie Ware, Ellie Goulding and Beyoncé’s best music feature on the soundtrack. Ware’s “Meet me in the middle”, Goulding’s “Love me Like You Do” and Beyoncé’s “Haunted” and “Crazy in love” remix are sexier than the plot.
The bad reviews won’t stop masses of women organising girls’ night out to see it, though. In South Africa the sales for last night’s special pre-screening broke all previous records, with 66 000 people booking to see the film before its official release. The previous record was for Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part Two at 16 000. Perhaps it’s fitting, seeing as 50 Shades started off as fan fiction for Twilight.
50 Shades of Grey is rather 50 shades of beige: bland and forgettable.
Cast: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden