For masochists only
Fifty Shades of Grey, in review

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of EL James’ bestseller comes freighted with expectations – gleeful, bloody-minded expectations. Taylor-Johnson is best known for her video installations of decaying fruit, as well as the Lennon movie Nowhere Boy, which is handsome if a bit anonymous. She’s a canny choice to direct. You can imagine a bunch of studio execs sucking on stogies and going through a list of female directors, keenly aware that a film about submission might bring with it accusations of misogyny. Men in suits and in charge are what Fifty Shades of Grey is all about.

Christian Grey (The Fall’s Jamie Dornan) is a 27-year old billionaire (though what he does is never quite specified, at least not in the movie). Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Don) is not a pornstar, as you might have guessed, but an undergraduate studying English Lit, who lives in one of those improbably nice apartments every 20-something in American movies seems to inhabit.

I’m a year older than Grey, and looking at his methods I can see where I’ve been going wrong. He buys her a car, personally flies her to Seattle in his helicopter, looks like Jamie Dornan and sends her first editions of Thomas Hardy, her favourite writer.

But he also likes the rough stuff, and much of the film is taken up with a contract negotiation – how far Anastasia is willing to go, how much pain she can tolerate, what gear she’s comfortable with using: cable ties in, gaffer tape out. Where Anastasia wants to go out to dinner and a movie, Grey doesn’t want romance. He doesn’t ‘do’ relationships, and Fifty Shades is an extreme extrapolation of that trend: the determination of the modern male to secure sex with no strings attached.

Taylor-Johnson’s film is full of cringe-inducing Mills & Boon dialogue, as though the filmmaker and her screenwriter Kelly Marcel only had so much leeway to run a red marker through the original text. In an interview a few days ago Taylor-Johnson was open about her fights with James. “When you have an author and an auteur, it's a difficult and challenging relationship”.

The film itself is full of pearls like that. Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele shag their hearts out in sex scenes that never get too transgressive, while Sia and Beyonce boom over the soundtrack. Afterwards Christian retreats to a piano in his designer living room, where he taps away plaintively while Anastasia sidles up to him and unleashes lines like, “It sounds so sad. Everything you play sounds sad.”

But for all the eye-watering bathos there’s something enjoyably unreal about a blockbuster film in which anal fisting, vaginal fisting and genital clamps are discussed as though they’re mortgage payments, especially in a Hollywood whose tolerance for gore is only equaled by its squeamishness about sex. Now we know what trumps it: a pre-existing brand, the studio system’s holy grail. Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t quite have the wit to poke fun at itself in the manner of, say, The Lego Movie, but its decision to play it straight merits another kind of awe. 

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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