Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s movie version of the E.L. James bondage-porn bestseller is neither awful nor fab. But her erotic posh fantasy, hitting theaters this Friday after its Berlin premiere, will work with femme audiences.
Yes, I read “Fifty Shades of Grey,” in paperback, on an airplane, wedged in a middle seat between two people, hoping my cheeks weren’t flushed. Steamy is an understatement. But despite its titillating content, what James wrote—remember, she’s a collector and rabid fan of romantic fiction–is a classic romance.
What? Look, when something hits the zeitgeist like “Fifty Shades of Grey” (100 million copies and counting) it behooves any observer of culture to check the source to figure out why. Obviously, male-female power dynamics are at the root of dominant-submissive S & M rituals—which have endured for centuries— and that’s also what this book explores in sensational detail.
But the book’s roots are in romantic fiction.
1. Smart innocent beauty with limited means meets experienced but troubled wealthy grey-eyed rake. To the outside world, he’s a catch.
The book and movie take sweet English Literature college student Anastasia Steele (Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson sprig Dakota Johnson, age 25), about to graduate from a Portland, Oregon college, and thrust her into contact with young billionaire Christian Grey (Irish “The Fall” star Jamie Dornan, age 32). Her roommate fell sick before she was supposed to interview him for the college paper, so Anastasia fills in, appropriately embarrassed by her line of inquiry. (Her arrival at his impossibly deluxe glass skyscraper office overlooking Seattle is right out of “The Devil Wears Prada.”)
2. They are mutually attracted.
The movie starts out well enough, establishing their intense mutual sexual desire. Anastasia instantly figures out he’s a “control freak”—”I am used to getting my own way,” he says, later adding, “I don’t do romance.” (The excellent soundtrack includes Annie Lennox’s Grammy number “I Put a Spell On You” as well as the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.”)
3. He withdraws from the fray, hinting at a dark past.
“I’m not the man for you,” he says. “You should steer clear of me. I have to let you go.”
4. He can’t stay away, however, and introduces her to the joy of sex.
“You’re so bossy,” says Anastasia.
“My tastes are very singular,” says Christian.
“Enlighten me then,” she says.
“I would like to bite that lip,” he says.
So he ties her to the bedpost with one of his Master of the Universe grey ties, and slaps her butt. She responds enthusiastically. And he shows her his weekend red room of pain, stocked with S & M paraphernalia: whips, switches, stirrups, belts, peacock feathers, canes. “That’s the flogger,” he says. “Welcome to my world.”
British Taylor-Johnson (“Nowhere Boy”) handles the sex scenes with delicacy and finesse. We are matter-of-factly close to their flushed skin, his muscled chest and abs, her pert breasts and lithe body, the little hairs on her thighs. We see flashes of their pubic hair—but no full frontal of him. We don’t giggle with discomfort as they thrust and parry. It’s erotic and real. The audience at Hollywood’s Arclight (a mix of contest winners and press), were silent, intense, hushed. Fair to say, the sex shows a woman’s touch. No man could have done so well. (Editor Anne V. Coates worked on “Lawrence of Arabia” and another very sexy movie, “Unfaithful.”)
5. He shows her his wealthy lifestyle.
This is where Universal chairman Donna Langley and “The Social Network” producers Michael De Luca (now running production at Sony) and Dana Brunetti understood the movie’s potential appeal to a mass audience. It’s a Cinderella fantasy not unlike “Pretty Woman,” where the smart working girl gets the unhappy business baron to reveal his true self by falling in love with her—buying her beautiful clothes and giving her a makeover. The book at least takes the time to establish our college grad getting a job when she moves to Seattle and paying her own way for a time, at least, as Christian showers her with gifts—computer, car (replacing her vintage VW Bug), clothes. In the movie she shows up at his office for a contract negotiation wearing impossibly expensive designer clothes of her own. Huh?
6. She tries to fix and domesticate him.
All Hollywood romances are based on the idea that there is a barrier to the couple getting together that must be overcome. In this case, Christian is a practitioner of S & M and insists on being the dominant, controlling his submissive, who must sign a detailed negotiated contract. To her credit, our girl is resisting doing this, although she goes along with learning about some of his practices. She’s curious and willing to be educated in the ecstasy of sex, even if bondage is involved. But she wants Christian to be her boyfriend, make love to her, go on dates, while he wants to own her. As she plays coy, he stalks her protectively and tries to lure her with helicopter rides and gifts. He even tracks her to Savannah as she visits her mother (Jennifer Ehle).
That’s the central conflict, which as it plays out becomes somewhat dull. (The book offers far more explorative sex practices and toys—which are selling out in sex shops.) We won’t know the upshot until we see the two movie sequels, but clearly the old-fashioned girl gets her way.
While the filmmakers had to walk a careful line between believable erotic fantasy and alienating audiences who generally prefer their movie sex to be PG—the movie is tracking to open at $60 million over Valentine’s Day weekend—the film feels clean and sanitized, Hollywood glossy. Taylor-Johnson battled over the movie and its ending with James—who sold the movie rights to Universal/Focus Features for some $5 million while retaining approval of the final cut. It was written by Brits Kelly Marcel (“Saving Mr. Banks”) and Patrick Marber (“Notes on a Scandal”).
I had hoped that the Focus Features side of the equation would yield a more gritty European independent film that took real risks. But predictably, with dollar signs in view, the studio took over the release. The movie plays it safe, while trying to reach the widest possible audience.
Here’s what critics are saying so far. Inevitably, comparisons to “9 1/2 Weeks” abound.
“Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and her screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, succeeded in stripping the book of some of its flaws. Dakota Johnson gives a convincing, smart performance as heroine Anastasia Steele, though her chemistry with costar Jamie Dornan, as billionaire Christian Grey, doesn’t always sizzle.”
“Arriving on Valentine’s weekend with record-setting ticket presales, the first in a planned trilogy of movies will stoke the ardor of James’ fans, entice curious newbies and in every way live up to the ‘phenomenon’ hype. Although the book’s soft-X explicitness has been toned down to a hard R, this is the first studio film in many years to gaze directly at the Medusa of sex — and unlike such male-leer predecessors as ‘9 1/2 Weeks,’ it does so from a woman’s perspective. Aiming to please, the filmmakers submit without hesitation to the bold yet hokey source material, with leads Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson breathing a crucial third dimension into cutout characters.”
“Relying on the performances of two appealing, fresh-faced leads with little prior onscreen baggage, the filmmakers have turned their version of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ into a sly tragicomedy of manners — Jane Austen with a riding crop, if you will, or perhaps Charlotte Bronte with a peacock feather — that extracts no shortage of laughs from the nervous tension between Ana’s romantic dream come true and the psychosexual nightmare raging just beneath the surface. By happily shedding the book’s 500 or so pages of numbingly repetitive inner monologue and adding the crucial perspective of the camera, the filmmakers have also made Ana a somewhat tougher, more skeptical heroine, played by Johnson with a very appealing combo of little-girl-lost naivete and gradually deepening assertiveness.”
“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.”
“Out of the bedroom, the characters’ chemistry can be brittle — Christian is hiding secret pains from his past that keep him from being emotionally intimate — but the sex scenes reveal a carnal connection between them, with Taylor-Johnson making the scenes arousing without letting them devolve into soft-porn cheesiness. There’s a refreshing matter-of-factness to the sex, despite the kink, that feels nearly revolutionary in comparison to the usually tepid depictions we see from American studio films.”
“Director Sam Taylor-Johnson had an impossible mission on her hands to meld the tawdry with the conventional. It’s like trying to mash up the sensibilities of Lars von Trier with Nancy Meyers to create an end product that will be appealing on a mass scale. In trying to please everyone, though, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has stripped away the fun and settled on palatable. There have been perfume commercials with more depth and story arc.”
“Inevitably, this telling of the tale has been neutered to the brink of recognition. Christian is an S&M fetishist, and when Anastasia is invited into her new partner’s ‘Red Room of Pain,’ she’s confronted by a wonderland of leather, rope and repurposed circus equipment. And yet, by the time the movie ends just a few mild spankings later, ‘Fifty Shades’ feels like going on a trip to Disney World and only riding the monorail.”