Another in a long cinematic tradition of excavating an intriguing movie out of a trash novel, director Sam Taylor-Johnson (of the young John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy) and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (of Saving Mr. Banks) treat E.L. James’ bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey seriously as a picture of a problematic relationship between two very different people. It’s a strange, half-convincing film, part movie romance formula, and part psychological melodrama, shot like a thriller but with a cautiously sad core. It appears to head down troubling paths before pulling up short in a sudden conclusion. It’s a girl meets boy, girl tries out boy’s demands, girl’s not so sure she wants to stay story.
A young woman (Dakota Johnson) meets a rich young billionaire bachelor (Jamie Dornan) whose intensity attracts her. He likes her too, aggressively wooing her with expensive gifts, like first edition Thomas Hardy novels. She’s flattered, and allows her curiosity to pull her into his version of a relationship. They’re a study in opposites, she shy and giggly, and he self-serious and creepily controlled in all aspects of his life. She’s a romantic, and prone to drink a little and turn into a Broad City supporting character. He’s a movie workaholic, talking about “business” and standing around handsomely austere skyscraper conference rooms without ever getting into what, exactly, he does. All we know is she’s an English major without a job, and he’s a man who can afford to get his way.
He’s a dominant personality looking for someone to submit to his every whim. He wants to control her. This goes beyond the kinks that have made the story a sight-unseen source of derision and tittering (whips, handcuffs, and the like). She gets a thrill out of having her hands tied to the bedpost. But as their arrangement intensifies, bedroom negotiations soon involve an absurdly detailed and lengthy proposed contract. He’s clearly put in a lot of time thinking about his preferred partner’s activities. She says she’ll think about it, a totally reasonable reaction to his desire to determine her schedule, her diet, where she goes, who she sees.
To the movie’s credit, his increasingly controlling stalkerish behavior – appearing places unannounced, or taking over her life by, say, trading in her car for a new one without permission – isn’t soft-pedaled as twisted romance. A clear line is drawn between sex (even adventurous kinds) and exploitation. The problem isn’t the billionaire’s kinks, but the intensity with which he demands punishment and obedience, and how unwilling he is to pay attention to the needs of his partner. It’s all about his pleasure, his desires. This uncompromising can scare her, and yet she draws pleasure from their encounters, discovering that physical submission doesn’t need to include emotional compromise.
I never quite understood what they saw in each other. It doesn’t work as romance. He sees someone inexperienced and naïve, able to be molded into the partner he wants. She sees a handsome rich guy. What’s love got to do with it? There’s a tricky arc to be played here, a relationship that starts kinked and grows ominous. Johnson’s winning, vulnerable and charming, giving a real movie star performance. (Could we expect less from the daughter of Melanie Griffith and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren?) She bites her lips and rolls her eyes, able to make fun of her new boyfriend’s oddities, having fun with them, and then getting a little scared of how far he’ll go. She’s so good, floating through with intelligence and good humor, she even carries Dornan’s wooden sulky performance that’s mostly glowering and standing upright. (The supporting cast includes small roles for Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Ehle, so it’s not hurting for strong women.)
The leads draw clear differences between their characters, as opposites attract. We get several sex scenes that play dirtier in implication than in practice. They’re soft montages with lots of movement and skin but little lingering reveals. Two are set to Beyoncé songs, so you know they're smooth. The film saves the power plays for their negotiations, as she tries to get a “normal” boyfriend and accuses him of just wanting her as a sex slave. Their relationship is presented ambiguously enough, I wasn’t sure what we were rooting for. Do we want a Beauty and the Beast change on his part to loosen his rigid rules, or for her to leave him for someone more playful? I knew I wanted her to leave. He’s a gender-swapped Fatal Attraction waiting to happen. In its way, the movie’s an extreme metaphor for the difficulties couples face trying to compromise.
The movie should be looser and funnier, overheated in passion and problems. Imagine what a Pedro Almodovar approach could’ve ripened it into! Instead, it’s serious and slow, with long stretches of boredom between moments where Johnson’s allowed to leap to life with a twinkle in her eyes. Surprisingly little happens in the middle stretch as she decides whether or not to agree to his terms and submit to his will in all things. It allows ugly implications to creep in around the edges. But there’s a nice mix of giggling curiosity (“You’re so bossy,” she laughs mid spanking) and tentative caution, wondering just how much pleasure he derives from hurting her. She’s smart, refusing to get steamrolled by his uptight dominance, but curious to experiment a little first.
Taylor-Johnson, with cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, films it all in grey steel tones, making a film cool to the touch. It moves like a thriller, weighing its protagonist’s options seriously while keeping her partner’s motivations frustrating and frighteningly mysterious. I was pleasantly surprised to find a film focused on communication and consent, policing boundaries, and ending on what seems to me a triumphant “no means no.” Perhaps it’s a cliffhanger resolved in proposed sequels, but viewed as a single story unto itself, it’s a break for freedom, where a woman leaves a damaged man behind and goes forth into the world with the skills to have a mutually fulfilling relationship on her terms in the future. I’m not familiar with the source material, but somehow I think the filmmakers got the best possible movie out of it.