Two things are certain come the end of Valentine’s Day weekend 2015: “Fifty Shades of Grey” will be the second R-rated blockbuster of the year (following “American Sniper”) and stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan will have two of the most divisive movie performances in recent memory. Such is the case anytime a zeitgeist-rattling phenomenon such as E.L. James’ erotic novel is turned into a major motion picture: The hype has seemingly been working against the pair ever since they were cast in fall 2013, but the cards have always seemed to be particularly stacked against Dornan. After all, the 32-year-old Irish actor has the formidable task of taking a character that has inspired a range of intimate fantasies in over 100 million readers and translating him into a singular big screen creation. Talk about pressure.
A Divisive Dornan
When it comes to the popular literary franchise, it’s critical to realize how James constructs her novel’s titular sadomasochist more as a blank slate than as a complex character, encouraging readers to project their own personal desires onto his abstract establishment. Each unique reader envisions Christian Grey based on his or her own sexual realizations of the character, so it’s a given that the way in which Dornan and screenwriter Kelly Marcel interpret the character will be inherently polarizing.
The wildly mixed reviews for Dornan’s performance already prove such a point. While The Hollywood Reporter’s Sheri Linden reacted favorably, citing, “His performance quickly grows fascinating in its containment, revealing a disturbingly more animated side of Grey,” others have shown quite a distaste for Dornan’s monochrome turn. As A.O. Scott of The New York Times so humorously summarizes, “Mr. Dornan has the bland affect of a model, by which I mean a figure made of balsa wood or Lego.”
What You Should Be Watching
If you find yourself falling into the second camp this weekend, don’t let your disappointment in Dornan persuade you into thinking the former model-turned-actor’s talents are a complete bust. Instead, let Dornan’s newfound exposure guide you to his tremendous BBC crime thriller “The Fall,” for it’s here where his same “bland” acting skills in “Fifty Shades” are revitalized as menacing ambiguities. In just two short seasons, creator, writer and occasional director Allan Cubitt has crafted the most groundbreaking serial killer drama on television. Centered around the investigation between a Belfast senior police officer and a serial murderer (played by the divine Gillian Anderson and Dornan, respectively), “The Fall” is strikingly distinct because it’s one of the only shows where the viewer knows so little about the subjects involved.
Instead of a character study in the vein of “True Detective,” “Top of the Lake,” “The Bridge” and more, Cubitt opts for an observational psychological duel. With its hypnotic match cut editing and a camera content on looming above, behind and around its characters at every moment, “The Fall” creates an unnerving atmosphere where mental strategy and gender dynamics substitute for the genre’s conventional action and violence. Cubitt asks the viewer not to get to know or understand his characters on a personal level, but to study them vehemently. The result for the viewer is similar to being a spectator at a chess match — you see the game unfolding before you, but only know the players based on your observations of how they operate the board and each other. For this reason, “The Fall” gives even the most trivial of actions a heightened suspense, and even more fascinating is how Cubitt utilizes the pieces on the board he’s expertly staged.
The Male Type
Indiewire’s television critic Ben Travers has explored the show’s daring narrative in his glowing Season 2 review, particularly the way Cubitt and Anderson examine female sexuality in this traditionally masculine genre. But just as instrumental to the show’s success is how the men function. There are no male characters in “The Fall,” only male types, and a majority of the show’s provocative intensity comes from how these types operate within the genre and how they act, retaliate and defend themselves opposite Anderson’s intimidating feminine drive.
On one side is D.S. Tom Anderson (Colin Morgan), for instance, who arrives late in the second season as a well-mannered detective with sincerity and good ethics. Anderson is as vulnerable as the male type gets in “The Fall” — on the extreme end is the murderous Paul Spector. As written by Cubitt and brought to life by Dornan, Spector is the embodiment of a pure masculine state that exists in direct opposition to and functions solely to take advantage of the female body. We may be given insight into the structure of Spector’s family life, but, again, the show is more interested in how this male figure navigates the genre and the story’s female gaze than it is in exploring the facets of his personality.
Spector is Grey, Grey is Not Spector
Which brings us to Dornan specifically, who plays Spector quite similarly to how he plays Christian Grey — brooding and with a disquieting grin. But what “The Fall’s” storytelling approach does, which works tremendously to the actor’s advantage, is that it never forces him to humanize the character. The show observes Spector — it doesn’t punctuate his soul for emotions that would undermine his masculine build — and Dornan exudes a lecherous energy that is dangerous, perversive and, most importantly, maddeningly objective. Dornan may be drab in “Fifty Shades,” but don’t mistake his detachment in “The Fall” for a similar sense of blandness; he’s merely showing us a male type that can only function when perverting the female figure.
One of the more telling scenes centered around this conceit is when Spector is forced to come up with a devastating lie in order to divert his wife’s attention away from his true identity. Dornan refuses to fill the moment with even an inch of emotion, but it’s this cold-hearted steeliness that conceptualizes the character within the show’s observational gender structure. Spector is a blank who is only made full during moments of sexualized violence, either physical or mental, and these moments are about the only time Dornan suggests a fiery excitement behind his handsome, muted eyes. Because Cubitt is using the character to embody masculinity in its most carnal state, it’s quite advantageous Dornan seems “bland” opposite his wife and daughter. In another show the actor would absolutely come off as stiff, but in “The Fall” his choices are justified.
Spector’s masculinity only becomes injected with life when abusing the female form, so the lifelessness in moments where he must cooperate with the feminine body effectively builds the show’s potent deconstruction of gender. Unsurprisingly, then, Dornan comes alive anytime Spector mistreats the female gaze. It’s the moments in which Spector kills his victims, manipulates a female officer over the phone or mentally corrupts his child’s babysitter, where his numbing desires finally eroticize him, and where Dornan’s suggested passion and interest go to disturbing lengths in feeding his masculine ego.
Dornan Fits the Book, Not the Film
Ironically, Cubitt and Dornan construct Paul Spector much like E.L. James does Christian Grey: Both men are abstract in their overall design, thus allowing the viewer to project an identity onto the respective character in a way that is enticing and evocative. “Fifty Shades” goes the erotic and sensual route, “The Fall” the uncomfortable and threatening, but the layers of ambiguity in both men pull the viewer into the works with a seductive energy. Therefore it makes sense why Dornan was cast as Christian Grey, seeing as he already had one season of “The Fall” under his belt before he signed on for the film. Unfortunately for the actor, the film version of Grey is much different than the book version.
Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson try to humanize the character with a stronger sense of complexity and emotion than in the novel. Regardless of how successful they do this, the attempt had to be made in order for a movie to even be plausible. The problem is how the filmmakers create a more cinematically-defined Grey, while Dornan seems content on playing the open-ended book Grey. The film presents a version of Grey that aims to be definitively complex in the screenplay, while still trying to maintain a blank slate quality in Dornan’s performance which welcomes fantasies of all kinds. The results don’t paint Dornan in the best light, since the tone of the film acts as counterpoint to his characterization of Grey. The filmmakers want to humanize the character for the screen, but Dornan seems disinterested in such a move.
Cubitt, however, utilizes this same approach to characterization magnificently on television. It’s still unclear whether or not Dornan has the skills necessary to inject humanity into his characters, but the daring power of “The Fall” is how its confident approach to the serial killer genre never asks him to. In Cubitt’s meditative environment, Dornan is a bold presence of chiseled, poisoned masculinity. In “Fifty Shades,” the attention paid to giving Grey a somewhat relatable soul leaves Dornon ice cold and dull. It’s virtually an identical performance that’s made or broken under tone and material intent. The erotic blockbuster will no doubt catapult Dornan’s name, but it’s his work on “The Fall” that suggests he’s capable of evasive, memorable acting. If anything good can come from “Fifty Shades” this weekend, hopefully it’s that more people discover “The Fall.” Both seasons are available on Netflix. Start streaming and you may just find the essence of Christian Grey you were looking for.