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