With Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, Max Martini. Written by Kelly Marcel. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language. 105 minutes.
The important thing about FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is not that it’s based on a badly written best seller about kinky sex. What’s important is that the novel began life as “Twilight” fan fiction. That tells you everything you need to know. It’s about teasing and yearning and holding back and getting to the end leaving you wanting to know what happens next.
Oh, there’s kinky sex. The story is about Anastasia Steel (Dakota Johnson), a college literature major who meets the mysterious Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) when she substitutes for her roommate Carka (Jennifer Ehle) to interview him for the school paper. He’s hot and rich and has a certain aura about him, so naturally she’s attracted. For some reason he finds her attractive and starts finding ways to see her.
It’s not revealing any big secret that when things get physical his tastes are somewhat different. He’s not interested in “making love,” he’s interested in control. That may involve somewhat traditional sex, or it may involve her being tied up, or it might involve some of the toys in his playroom, which includes floggers, whips, and ropes.
This has led to all sorts of misguided controversy about the film which mostly misses the point. The key to these kinds of relationships is consent, and the movie scrupulously makes the point that not only does Anastasia consent to the various things that happen, but that Christian both respects her limits and is clear that she has the right to refuse at any point. On that score the movie is firmly in the “No means no” camp.
On the other hand, we don’t get the sense that either of them are getting anything but momentary pleasure from any of this. Anastasia may be submissive, but she’s clearly indulging Christian’s desires, not following her own. As for Christian, he seems more like someone who would love to lead a “normal” life, but because of some mysterious thing or things in his past, is now unable to do so.
This is where the film falls apart. We learn little about what motivates these characters or why we should care about them. For all the kinky sex, this is more about the yearning and unrequited love and the result is rather dull. This didn’t stop the “Twilight” books and movies from being big hits, and probably won’t prevent this one from cashing in either. Johnson and Dornan are both young and attractive but are given little to play. He broods. She seems to get off on the spanking and the tying up but eventually finds the relationship lacking. Where can the story go? No spoilers, but there are two sequel books.
Indeed, as with “Twilight,” the books were best sellers which means this movie has a built in audience waiting to see it. If, as expected, it’s a big success, filming the sequels is inevitable. What’s more, given the way Hollywood operates, expect the eventual announcement that the third book will be released as two films.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts