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As someone whose only knowledge of E. L. James’ barely-veiled erotica was the vitriolic reaction it seemed to almost universally receive, I was somewhat intrigued by the prospect of seeing whether the film adaptation justified the immense hype that the book series has garnered. Well, to start with, the mere title 50 Shades of Grey is misleading- the word ‘grey’ seems to lead towards the concept of moral ambiguity, which there isn’t, at all. Christian Grey is a character that can’t really be classified in filmic terms – he’s not the protagonist, he’s not (in an obvious way) an antagonist, and he’s not (as he keeps insisting, as if we’ve forgotten in the five minutes since he last said it) a ‘love interest’. He’s essentially a misogynist, sado-masochistic, militantly unempathetic cardboard cut-out, who should certainly be a prime candidate for a restraining order.
50 Shades of Grey is a film so tied up with aesthetics that it completely neglects to acknowledge the fact that, if he wasn’t ‘hot’, Christian Grey would just be a creepy sex pest whose obsession, based purely on lust and first impressions, completely engulfs someone else’s entire life and privacy. Look, I’m not going to bother delving further into the sheer lack of ethical boundaries and blatant disregard for two-dimensionality that 50 Shades offers – far more gifted people have already raised those issues in a far more intellectual, thoughtful manner. I’ll instead concentrate on the cinematic merits (or lack of) that Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film demonstrates.
Well, one thing I will say is that the acting is actually pretty good – but then again, the roles are thoroughly unchallenging. Jamie Dornan’s performance as Christian Grey requires him to look surly and horny for roughly 50% of the time apiece – frankly, you could get most pubescent kids to do that, and they wouldn’t even have to act. Having made that comparison, it has to be said that Dornan does an incredibly competent job; with his brooding sombreness accentuating his obvious physical attributes.
Dakota Johnson also does her best with the insipid Anastasia Steele, although she does entirely overplay the bookish nerd card at the start of the film. Also, we know Christian Grey’s intimidating, but that’s no reason to constantly look like you’re about to burst our crying, Dakota. Then again, any character who answers the question ‘are you a romantic?’ with ‘I’m an English Lit. major, so I kind of have to be’ (possibly a slight misquote there, but I didn’t make notes, so I’m doing my best) is clearly just too drippy to perform with anything other than absolute cliché , so it’s hard to criticise DJ too much. Everyone else is just completely redundant, which is obviously the point – the central duo are the only ones we find even remotely interesting, but the film needs to last long enough to justify today’s ever-more-exorbitant cinema prices, so we’re given a few pointless filler scenes (which Christian Grey often gatecrashes seemingly to stop the audience from nodding off).
One massive problem is the dialogue, which is largely expositional and basically serves to illustrate the things that can’t be expressed adequately by the blankness of the characters. Lines like ‘I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.’ belong on Redtube, not in a major Hollywood film, which in this day and age should be looking at the show-not-tell philosophy. Admittedly, this isn’t supposed to be a romantic flick, so that kind of belief is fine, but why is it released on Valentine’s Day then? Misleading release date, for sure. Having heard about the apparent graphicness of the novel, I was expecting 50 Shades of Grey to be a slightly less depressing, less emotive version of Lars Von Trier’s unsimulated-sex flick Nymphomaniac. It’s not. And, you know, maybe it should have been. 50 Shades of Grey doesn’t really have much emotional depth, and maybe were it a bit more explicit, we’d have a bit more understanding of the purportedly complex sensations that Christian and Anastasia feel. The problem is, we just don’t care about what happens to either of them – they’re not real people, they’re stereotypes. And that brings me to the central issue that the film has:
Nothing actually happens. Mark Kermode said in his review of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End; ‘nothing actually happens, a bunch of stuff happens but nothing actually happens’, and that’s 50 Shades of Grey in a nutshell. Sex, break for a bit, Christian buys Anastasia something, sex, break for a bit, Christian buys Anastasia something… continue ad infinitum. Well, for 2 hours and 5 minutes, which does start to feel like forever when nothing’s happening whatsoever. Even by the end of the film – which let’s be clear, is not a denouement in any sense of the word – nothing’s really happened. And that’s probably the biggest issue in a film that is mainly just issues. It’s not a film, it’s a low-grade softcore porno with sinister undertones. Don’t believe the hype. It’s not ’50 shades of fucked up’, as Christian elaborately describes himself as – it’s more ‘1 shade of beige’.