Stars: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Max Martini, Rita Ora and Marcia Gay Harden.
Writer: Kelly Marcel; based upon the novel by E.L. James.
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson.
There is hardcore porn to be had in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s much-hyped adaptation of the E.L. James publishing behemoth, just not the kind that went down in the saucy pages of the authoress’ lit-phenomenon. What the bigscreen visualisation lacks in graphic sexual detail, it more than makes up for in lavishly shiny materialism; Fifty Shades of Grey is wealth-porn, of the most base and immoral kind.
We meet our heroine, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) as she nears the end of her English Literature course. The buttoned-up, tightly-wound wall flower has paid her own way through college, her middle-class upbringing a normal one steeped in a solid work ethic and positive maternal figure (Jennifer Ehle). Stepping up to help her sick roomie BFF Kate (Eloise Mumford), Anastasia agrees to interview the enigmatic socialite Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a chiselled-jaw millionaire telcom exec, and an oddly defined attraction forms between them.
‘Ana’ learns very early on that Christian is a psychologically damaged individual who will offer no long-term, emotionally stable co-existence. Yet she indulges herself in her own fantasy life, embracing the opulence of his 1% lifestyle. That comes at a price – she must adhere to his demands of male-dominant sexual submissiveness. Whether in his lean, muscly embrace or, as the ‘relationship’ progresses, chained to his dungeon wall taking a gentle flogging, she smiles and gasps and moans, like a soft-core B-movie queen. Yet her most heartfelt sensations stem from those breathless, pulse-quickening first glimpses of his helicopter, collection of cars or shimmering steel-and-glass apartment.
The actors have an ambiguous, edgy chemistry that serves the film well. Johnson grows into her character convincingly as the narrative progresses, bravely baring all when required to do so; Dornan plays Christian with an icy stare and rigid formality, reflecting the character’s need to be in total control. British director Taylor-Johnson’s last foray into cinematic sexuality was a short segment in 2006’s very ‘European’ anthology, Destricted, in which a young hunk pleasures himself to climax in the desert. Her latest take on the ‘alpha-male’ archetype is not too dissimilar; Christian is also a bit of a wanker, surrounded by a barren, lifeless landscape, in this case the shiny boardrooms and penthouses of an appropriately grey Seattle.
Over an hour in, we get the first glimpse of how close the film will align itself to the books stark intimacy. But, barring one spontaneous bedroom bout of highly-energised action, the overly-choreographed raunch is mildly titillating at best; the baring of bottoms and boobs with the occasional glimpse of down-there hair is played with an earnestness that gets a bit giggly at times. The decision to launch the film internationally at the Berlinale may backfire, with continental audiences bound to roll their eyes at the exaggerated sexual melodrama played out in Christian’s ‘playroom’. Thankfully, scripter Kelly Marcel mostly reins in the florid ridiculousness of the novel’s ripe dialogue, yet somehow let Christian’s plaintive cry, “I’m fifty shades of f**ked-up” slip through.
The most lasting impression is the nonchalance with which the production refuses to acknowledge the arrogance of the rich in this post-GFC world; when Anastasia asks Christian about his conglomerate’s philanthropic endeavours, he states without irony, “It’s good for business”. Seamus McGarvey’s glistening cinematography and David Wasco’s extravagant production design celebrates the excesses of the rich like few films have dared to in recent years. This is a world that recalls the ‘Greed is Good’ mantra of 80’s yuppiedom; an America that has cast aside the ‘all for one’ goodwill of post 9-11 western society and rediscovered the tenets of the ‘Me Generation’. There are thematic echoes of American Psycho and Bonfire of The Vanities, but not a drop of those much finer works’ knowing, satirical skewering of gaudy wealth.
It may be perfectly sufficient that, above all else, Fifty Shades of Grey captures the shallow essence of its source material. It is an indulgent guilty-pleasure of no consequence whatsoever, preferring to forego the deeper ramifications of a dark sexual lifestyle in favour of a franchise-starting origin story.