There is not nearly enough sex in this movie. Or, I guess I should say, not enough fun sex. The film adaptation of E L James’ kinky, possessive bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey is just as sleek, safe and occasionally steamy as I thought it was going to be.
It has one scene of standard, well-choreographed heterosexual thrusting, a scene of intensely erotic bedroom foreplay (with ice cubes and Beyonce) and then two audacious but boringly staged BDSM sequences (only one of which has Beyonce). Its biggest enemy is that it practices the wrong kind of restraint, and avoids engaging with the very thing that sold tens of millions of books and sparked a seemingly endless conversation about inner goddesses and troubling relationship dynamics.
Set mostly in Seattle and Portland and shot with a color palate that both honors its title and imbues the movie with seductive, red and blue-tinted shadows, Fifty Shades is about trying to turn romance into a one-sided business transaction. Broody billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) finds himself enchanted by Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a soon-to-be-graduating lit student who shows up at his office to interview him about how amazing he is for the school newspaper.
Armed with a nervous demeanor and, like her Twilight ancestor before her, a penchant for gnawing on her lower lip, Anastasia fumbles into the tycoon’s life with enough earnestness to soften even the coldest, most vaguely troubled of hearts. Christian is so enamored by her that he almost seems willing to give up his singularly dominant sexual lifestyle and try something resembling traditional intimacy.
That’s not to say he still doesn’t want to strap her down in his elaborate, dimly lit sex dungeon, though. Anastasia calls it the Red Room of Pain, though Christian insists it’s much more about pleasure. Like everything else in the movie, this room looks ornate and untouched by human hands. It consists of a mattress and several tables surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of whips, paddles and ropes, none of which are ever really shown being used.When the passion doesn’t involve Christ, you can’t really get away with showing these things being used and keep an R rating, I suppose. You can see Christian’s hand hover over and select one of the tools, and Ana’s body writhe in anticipation as he approaches, but director Sam Taylor-Johnson relies on implication rather than illustration. The scenes in this room seem trapped inside a porn that’s never allowed to be truly pornographic. The camera lavishes attention on Johnson’s breasts and her orgasmic moans, but rarely at the same time that it shows anything sexual happening to her. (Sadly, not nearly the same amount of attention is given to Dornan). Sex and pleasure are isolated here, and rarely do the two meet in the same frame. Instead, there are cringe-inducing slow motion shots of Christian teasing her with a whip and wide shots of her exposed body prior to experiencing anything.
Taylor-Johnson is at her best as a director when hinting at the story’s kink instead of clumsily trying to film around it to satisfy the MPAA. From what I have heard and read about the books (I haven’t actually read any of them), she also has no intention of fully succumbing to its depictions of domestic violence and sexual assault. Her movie focuses on laying the groundwork for a troubling relationship and backing away from it more than it romanticizes any of Grey’s behavior.
There are a couple of creepy instances where he shows up unexpectedly to visit Anastasia; she turns the corner at work and he’s standing there with a far away grin, or he texts her about what she’s drinking while she’s at a bar with her mom. Both of these scenes are edited as if they’re in a horror movie and Grey is the smiling, psychotic killer. Other scenes, where he shoves one of Anastasia’s college classmates who tries to kiss her at a party or probes her about having a boyfriend, chip away at the mystique of his character. Taylor-Johnson acknowledges his disturbing behavior formally, but then sadly attempts to isolate those moments from the charming, seductive Christian instead of making the character own up to all of his behavior. At times it seems as if her movie is trying to figure out whether to be seduced or repelled by him, just like Ana.
Seduction wins out in the end, at least until the movie devolves into an incredibly ineffective melodrama in the last few minutes before the sequel-baiting ending. However, the most fascinating thing about Fifty Shades of Grey is how much it holds back, how a major studio dances around a story with numerous sex scenes driven by bondage and sadomasochism. For all its witless, asinine dialogue, it is an oddly engaging two-hour exercise in lip-biting, furrowed eyebrows and exposed armpits. It could have used a little more Romance, though. Grade: C-