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Film Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

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★★★★☆

There is a scene in BBC Two’s controversial and mesmerising drama The Fall where Jamie Dornan, in the role of serial killer Paul Spector, ties up a young student and binds her to a bed in a kinky sexual power game. He also discusses bondage with women and regularly likes to go running, grew up an orphan and had an abusive childhood.

There are strange and uncomfortable parallels to his role in that exceptionally good television series and his lead turn in this adaptation of E.L. James erotic bestseller, but instead of seeming repetitive, Dornan’s talent as an actor allows him to position his character in a new range, offering a new set of complexities for the audience to untangle.

Of course this is not all down to Dornan, superb though he is. Fifty Shades of Grey (the film) is, as a whole, as very good piece of work. It is classily directed by Turner Prize nominated artist Sam Taylor-Johnson. She wisely sidesteps any form of first-person narrative and allows us to observe our hero, English Literature student Anastasia Steele, rather than inhabit her head, as she navigates the tricky waters of dating a billionaire who enjoys slightly unusual activities in the bedroom (or rather, his Red Room of Pain).

Screenwriter Kelly Marcel is also on the list of people we have to thank. This could have been awful. It could have been like a strange, sexually-charged episode of Waterloo Road, with horrifically clunky dialogue that nobody would ever say in real life. Thank goodness it isn’t. James’s book is, to put it nicely, a bit challenged when it comes to the prose used to tell its sultry story. Marcel, who wrote the wonderful film Saving Mr. Banks, has done an amazing job on the novel. She has filleted it, streamlined it, cut out the rubbish and all the annoying asides (‘Holy crap’, ‘My Inner Goddess’) and has made it into a story that feels real, involving real people we can actually believe in, real situations we could imagine (even if we don’t encounter them ourselves) and dialogue that doesn’t drop like a lead balloon. If there were an Oscar for ‘Best Improvement on Source Material’, this would win it.

The character rehabilitation that Anastasia Steele has gone through is helped along by a spirited, fun, engaging and emotionally intuitive turn from Dakota Johnson (I’m not going to mention her family’s acting heritage....ok, I just did, but I’m not going to say anymore about it...just take a look on Wikipedia at who her parents are and, more importantly, who her grandmother is). Johnson’s honest performance has been well pitched so as to be true to the Anastasia of the book whilst stripping her of all her silliness. The result is a central hero who is easy to like and a joy to watch.

Let’s get to the sex. My goodness, it is tame. If there is something rather disappointing about the movie, it’s the fact it doesn’t go far enough. Probably because they were terrified of upsetting America’s outdated, preposterous film ratings board, they have toned down the sex to something that resembles ‘vaguely spicy’ rather than outright erotic. Of all projects, this is one that would have benefited from a Lars von Trier Nymphomaniac-style approach. Real sex, real penetration and if Dornan and Johnson didn’t want to do it, get in some body doubles. It’s been done before and should have been done here. There are no penis shots. There is the fleeting shot of a vagina. The book pushed boundaries in explicitness. The film could and should have done the same. All the sex is brief and non-explicit (though the audience did go wild for Jamie Dornan’s bare buttocks) and feels way too safe considering the fuss around the erotic subject matter.

Key parts that have been toned down include the extremely graphic blowjob scene where Christian teaches Anastasia how to perform fellatio. It’s nowhere to be seen. Cunnilingus has also been removed, or shifted off-screen (basically oral sex is a no go area). The tampon moment is gone (though this may be a good thing) as is most of the discussion about anal sex (including Christian talking about the fact that he too likes to receive it anally occasionally). There are a few bursts of explicit talk of ‘fisting’, but these are mostly added for comedy value rather than sexual substance.

There have been some mutterings – usually from people who haven’t bothered to read the book or see the film – that the story condones rape, sexual violence, misogyny and all manner of hideous things. It doesn’t. It does the complete opposite. It does feature S&M role-play and brief whipping, but from the hysterical cry from some corners of the twitersphere, you’d think this was advocating rape and genocide. If anyone goes to see this film and thinks that it encourages rape, they have either tragically misunderstood the clear message of the movie or they just desperate to have something to shout about.

Leaving its sexual politics and penchant for more ‘vanilla’ style sex aside, this adaptation is on the whole a solid success. It’s a compelling drama, an interesting romance, intelligently put together and very well shot. Oscar nominated Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (who shot Avengers Assemble, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and The Hours) gives the film a cool and seductive look with his Arri Alex captured images and the set and art design is all first rate. Everything (or nearly everything) works. This is one of the most surprising pieces of cinema I have seen in a long while.

 

Fifty Shades of Grey is in cinemas now, Certifiate 18. Watch the trailer below: 

 

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