The ending of Fifty Shades of Grey really made the picture. Before a finale in which meek Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) firmly turns down the imposing and domineering Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the movie had been a modestly enjoyable adult drama, a sort of half-sexy, half-preposterous interlude between pretty young people engaging in teasingly revealed sexual exploration between bouts of bland business speak and low-boil rom-com flirting. Ah, but in its final moments it turned what had been a lopsided power dynamic – rich sadist gets off hurting a sweet underling who likes it, but only up to a point – into a loaded denial. He pleads with her to stay. She, having finally realized he liked hurting her more than she liked it and more than her willingness to play along could withstand, says a firm, simple, strong, “No.” It’s the last thing we hear as the elevator doors close on the final cut to black. Because Johnson had been such a fun performer, equally enthusiastic and full of personality in bedroom scenes and barroom conversations alike, she almost single-handedly kept the movie from tipping over into prurient giggling or exploitative leering, especially with Dornan’s dour wooden display at her side. This final assertion of her control over the situation lent the movie a nice, contained little arc the sequels were bound to trample.
As Fifty Shades Darker begins, Anastasia continues to rebuff Christian’s creepily insistent attempts to get his way back into her life. Alas, as following the dictates of the garbage book that inspired this whole thing demands, she must allow this to happen. If the first film was ultimately about a young woman trying out a relationship with a cold, distant, persnickety man just to see if she could make it work, the second is about that same woman getting pulled back into the relationship just because. If these stories are theoretically about true love, and I suspect that’s the ending we’re angling towards in next year’s supposed finale, it has done a poor job showing it. This installment, directed by James Foley (both a long way, and somehow not, from his better, similarly icy-toned, attractively cast and photographed 90’s thrillers Fear and After Dark, My Sweet), finds the couple trying out a new dynamic, with fewer rules and diminished expectations. She gets a new job. He buys the company. She meets his family. He takes her sailing. Playing out with smooth adult contemporary ballads under the glossy catalogue spread looking montages – people standing around in sweaters, on boats, at masquerade balls, and beside fireplaces – it tries to gin up interest with some workplace drama and Dark Secrets From The Past. At least it allows for the introduction of Kim Basinger, a welcome sight in an all-too-tiny role.
What little attention paid to the central relationship takes their chemistry and compatibility for granted. Even the sex scenes, the most memorable a fully-clothed shower make out session, aren’t as entertaining as the first’s, more actors’ contract negotiation than character development. (That’s really saying something when the original had literal contract negotiation built into the plot mechanics.) It’s like everyone involved suspects this couple’s long-term happiness won’t, or shouldn’t, work out, but are obligated to stand by them and see it through. (I’m sure many of us have been to weddings like that.) Even when we learn Christian is not just a dominant lover, but also a bit of a burgeoning cult leader – an ex (Bella Heathcote) still falls submissive before his meekest gestures, like she’s still under his spell – the weird sense of inevitable True Love pulls at the main couple. But why would the movie insist watching the funny, bookish, charming young woman continue to be drawn back into the world of this clearly unwell, closed-off, stone-faced billionaire is a route to a happy ending? It tries to be both a romance and a modern Gothic mystery (the question simmering underneath: what’s the deep darkness at the heart of family Grey?), but the latter continually turns the former far more sinister than intended.
And yet, why, then, does the movie give off the dull, consistent feeling of moderate surface pleasure? Perhaps it is because Johnson’s tremulous, dancing, sparkling line readings pirouette off the clunky dialogue (scripted by author E.L. James’ husband) and Foley’s use of competent cold grey photography is seductive Hollywood sheen. And even when I was baffled by the plot’s direction – and by how little actually happens – I was tickled enough by the splashes of melodrama – a drink thrown in a woman’s face at a fancy party! improbable publishing office politics! a random helicopter accident thrown in to gin up false suspense before the movie’s narrative totally flatlines! – to get carried along in its dumb gloss. It’s an empty-headed diversion, as silky a nothing as the original Zayn/Taylor Swift duet that twice slickly slides in one ear and out the other on the soundtrack. These are hardly the best reasons to recommend a movie. And, sure, it’s the sort of faux-transgressive that, say, The Handmaiden’s silver bells would make blush. But I was moderately entertained by this low-key mind-numbing polish.