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Review: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is as Ridiculous as You’d Expect

Review: 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is as Ridiculous as You'd Expect

The feature-length adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” opens with Annie Lennox’s snazzy cover of “I Put a Spell on You,” a choice obviously meant to convey the ensuing S&M plot between recent college graduate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and young billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). However, it ultimately speaks to a bigger force at work — namely, the absurd extent to which this unapologetically trashy source material has managed to hold sway over popular culture.

READ MORE: 6 Reasons Why ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Will Rock the Box Office

Lifted from the first of E.L. James’ wildly successful novels, which started as a form of “Twilight” fan fiction, the movie plays strictly by the book — which is hardly a compliment. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson from Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, the considerable talent behind the camera and a modicum of considerable performances yield a few undeniable guilty pleasures, but most viewers will be seeking a safe word to escape this two-hour-plus mess of half-baked excess.

Taylor-Johnson’s previous directorial outing, the John Lennon origin story “Nowhere Boy,” similarly tracked a young character coming to grips with his identity. But while Lennon had real talent and ambition, Anastasia’s only sincere desires involve whether or not she’s willing to sign a contract allowing Grey to turn her into his object of fetishistic abuse. Johnson does her best to give Anastasia’s conundrum a genuine sense of intrigue, and her final bits as she confronts Grey on the nature of his peculiar desires register some modicum of suspense. However, the stilted Dornan doesn’t even meet her halfway. But he can’t be held entirely at fault for the paucity of material he’s given, and the extent to which the movie remains tethered to the book’s limited scope.

Admirably enough, Taylor-Johnson and the ever-reliable cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement”) go great lengths to work around it. The drab Seattle setting takes on a haunting aura not unlike its “Twilight” inspiration; when Christian invites the befuddled Anastasia into his “pleasure room,” the scene is bathed in an ominous red, while their tender nighttime exchanges adopt a calming blue. One recurring motif finds Grey silhouetted against an expansive view of downtown from his palatial high rise, at once celebrating his luxury and oddly trapped by it, the sort of epic conceit that might seem at home in “Citizen Kane.”

But no amount of polished technical ingredients can salvage a relatively faithful screenplay that — while skimping on some of the more outlandish sex scenes — lifts much of the book’s painfully rudimentary dialogue verbatim. “If you were mine,” Christian tells Anastasia early on, “you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week.”

Such trivial moments are exacerbated by the extent to which “Fifty Shades of Grey” relies on its main protagonists’ unconvincing chemistry. Marcia Gay Harden lands a few enjoyably catty scenes as Christian’s demanding mother, while Eloise Mumford does a competent job as Anastasia’s encouraging roommate, but the movie predominantly operates as a two-hander.

Filling in for her roomie on a college newspaper assignment to interview Grey at his office, Anastasia’s immediately smitten with the cryptic figure despite his apparent resistance to open up. The sparks between them are obvious from the moment he confesses his desire to control everything in his life and she can’t help but seem attracted to the suggestion. Moments later, after drunk-dialing him from a bar, Anastasia’s swooped up in an unruly series of encounters with the publicity-shy figure, who confesses his desire for her before revealing his biggest hang-up: If she wants him, she has to sign a contract in which she agrees to his sadomasochistic urges.

The second half of “Fifty Shades of Grey” revolves around Anastasia’s prevarications over Christian’s proposition even as their sexual chemistry continues to blossom. From the moment he takes her virginity in a softly-lit scene set to a swooning pop score, the movie displays a willingness to show some skin for the sake of the titillation promised by the material, while still very clearly holding back. The sex, well-choreographed for what it is, hovers on the verge of soft-core material but only offers fragments. With the book’s dirtiest sequences excised from the picture, even the most extreme bedroom sessions amount to little more than a teaser trailer for the source material.

Needless to say, no amount of evocative images or elaborately-framed thrusts can save a story this blandly one-note. Christian’s silly backstory, which pivots on his childhood as the offspring as a crack addict, arrives on cue midway through the narrative to explain away his kinks as the depraved side-effect of a troubled youth. This context extends to the movie’s treatment of sexuality as a whole in darkly unappealing terms even as it advertises the opposite.

In a welcome contrast, “Fifty Shades of Grey” opens the same month as Peter Strickland’s lesbian S&M romance “The Duke of Burgundy,” in which the role-playing of its two lovesick leads ultimately builds to a warm conclusion. By contrast, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a maddeningly conservative affair.

More than that, it mostly avoids the prospects of giving its characters any real agency. Johnson’s investment in the role only reaches its fruition in the tightly-directed climax, when she manages to wrestle control of the situation. If the story ended there, it might allow for a burst of transgressive energy largely invisible for most of the picture. But knowing that it arrives with the promise of more to come makes the overall experience even more execrable.

Over a decade ago, Steven Shainberg’s “Secretary” bested “Fifty Shades of Grey” by using its setting to explore the intersection of private and personal experiences on modern sexuality. By now, the concept registers as fairly hollow: Christian’s a rich dude with some screwed up urges. Who cares? The movie fails to make a case for anything other than the idea that a sadomasichistic romance bolstered by affluent surroundings registers on the same shallow level as Christian’s luxurious existence.

So it comes as no surprise that the more eccentric attributes of their sexual antics — which involve everything from whipping and cuffs to a touch of ice cube foreplay — barely give us more than glimpses of unimaginative kitsch. No matter its salacious reputation, “Fifty Shades of Grey” retains an uninvolving quality to the proceedings. At one point, Christian refers to his romance with Anastasia as “fifty shades of fucked up,” but it’s actually quite routine. “I don’t make love,” he tells her. “I fuck. Hard.” Despite all that, “50 Shades a Grey” only goes surface deep.

Grade: C-

“Fifty Shades of Grey” premieres this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. Universal Pictures releases it nationwide on Friday.

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Addendum: I posted without checking for typos- It should be "its" prosaic tones. And Jane Eyre is spelled incorrectly. And by all means, please know I’m not comparing the writing of EL James to Charlotte Brontë, only in terms of using classic themes of romance.


For me, "The Duke of Burgundy" is slow, pointless and dull. Where "Fifty Shades of Grey" is engaging and endearing. As much as I enjoyed the books as a guilty pleasure, I too scoffed at it’s prosaic tones and thought of the book and the movie as icing. Then a friend pointed out to me that EL James wrote a classic romantic tale of a wounded man and innocent woman meeting and falling in love, not unlike many such stories in literature – "Jane Eyer" for instance. Her words and a second screening of the movie opened my eyes to see past the icing to the cake. These two people want each other, but need different things, therefore the movie explores matters of trust and letting one’s guard down. Why isn’t that a enough for the movie to be about? The light BDSM and the over the top romantic gestures are entertaining ways to narrate this "Rochester" and this "Jane" finding their way.


Dee, there is no such thing as a completely unbiased review. You seem pre-biased in favor of the book, as are most of the people who gave this film a positive review. See how that works both ways?


Great Review. Get mad this is bastardization of art for the sake of cheapness


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Dee, you’re embarassing yourself, defending a book that glorifies abuse is not a good look. Stop acting like this is a future Oscar-winning movie.


I’m gonna stamp this out if it kills me.

"Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson from Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, the considerable talent behind the camera and a modicum of considerable performances yield a few undeniable guilty pleasures, but most viewers will be seeking a safe word to escape this two-hour-plus mess of half-baked excess."

When you start the sentence with "Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson from Kelly Marcel’s screenplay," the next thing you type has to be "Fifty Shades of Grey." That’s what was directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson from Kelly Marcel’s screenplay.

Elspeth Chagall

Dee, it’s only a review. Get over it. Or are you one of those die-hard "Grey" fans? My condolences:p


Honestly, I’m going to have to sit through this with my Rub Maps girlfriend. I love her enough and it’s going to be Valentine’s Day.


So the dirtiest scenes from the book are taken out but the super dumb dialogue is in? Oh man, would love to see this for free for the bad delivery. Like The Room of erotic movies.


Insightful, articulate, and humorous in the right places. Unfortunate the film strays from what its lure was, but what can we expect?? Its not the literary prowess that’s selling tickets. Its the taboo nature of the relationship between the two characters


I predicted this movie would be boring as the books are painful to read. Anna’s monotone whispery voice – I just couldn’t possibly listen to that for two hours. The feigned virgin look is dull and painful to watch. James got lucky so many people have no idea what is good erotica. These two actors have no chemistry or individual sex appeal. Give me 9 1/2 Weeks with two sexy people who bring a lot of chemistry to the screen. Not even going to go watch this ridiculousness. Great review though Eric.

The Truth

Of course. The folks here on Indiewire has been dogging on Fifty Shades of Grey for weeks. Of course they were going to give it a negative review.


To Joe and "Haver": If either of you two morons have been actually paying attention to IndieWire in the months leading up to the release of Fifty Shades, you would have noticed the condescending, haterade filled commentary towards it and that the unwavering support of Secretary coincides with the re-release of Secretary in new formats which somehow was magically timed to release near Fifty Shades of Grey coming out as a film. The filmmakers of Secretary even changed the original cover art to show a brown haired girl with a gray tie falling down her bare back. What kind of bs is that? The original cover was fine and way more honest to the feature. Secretary and Fifty Shades are not the same story or the same film and I am tired of punks trying to make it seem like they are or make some far fetched comparison out of loyalty to the former. As far as getting annoyed with a review, Haver (Punk), I don’t like Mr. Kohn’s pre-biased review as it is disgusting and betrays the very field of which he pretends to be a part. Why don’t you go be productive and grow a pair?


I have seen a lot of good reviews, but it is always nice to hear a different opinion.

Good Opinion Haver

Also, great review Eric.

Good Opinion Haver

Dee, stop getting angry at a Film Review on the internet. Go do something productive instead.


Dee, the reviewer brought up a movie that dealt with similar themes and argued that one was more better. Reviews often do this. Sorry your toes have been stepped on.


Of course you dog Fifty Shades and then dare to bring up Secretary (and I love that movie) even though they are not even remotely the same bloody story. You should be ashamed of yourself. Turn in your credentials as a critic and admit whose pockets you really live in.


hahaha. YES. Good review


No matter which direction a review of Fifty Shades of Grey goes: positive or negative, never the train shall meet. That movie is done, much to my disappointment.
There have been scathing comments on the two leading actors as being, well, whatever “clever” degrading description can be assigned. I was very disappointed in the “no holds barred” evisceration of Jamie Dornan. In other performances, Mr. Dornan has demonstrated his ability as an actor. I feel like if there had been a different director, a better screenwriter and a special “red room” to store author EL James out of the way and out of the hair of the director and screenwriter, things might have turned out differently for this movie.
Jamie Dornan has shown his skills and he has been rewarded for his abilities by winning awards from IFTA and by nominations from other respected organizations for his performances in “The Fall.” His intentions for Christian Grey were good but the script was lousy and the story was thin. The director and screenwriter were not given freedom to improve anything as the author was a huge interference. So the director and the screenwriter quit! Would that Jamie and Dakota could have vacated their slots too! But, hopefully the new director, James Foley can resurrect the next two movies in the trilogy. I’ve noticed that ELJames has been off the set, so maybe that will help.
Excuses for bad reviews don’t make the reviews fair, so what’s done is done.
I feel really sorry for the ridicule that Jamie Dornan has endured and the same for Dakota. However Dakota has piled on a bunch of additional movies which helps her. Jamie has “The Fall” and hopefully some new releases for him can restore his battered being, because he is a talented and capable AND A CREATIVE actor.

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