Let’s get this out of the way—those going into Fifty Shades Of Grey expecting an erotic experience are going to be disappointed. The sex scenes are all tastefully shot and, save for the much-ballyhooed BDSM trappings, not especially provocative. (The French were right on this one.) But even if the film were NC-17-level explicit, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. Leads Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, both of whom spend the majority of the film supposedly desperately longing for each other, have so little chemistry that it gives the sexy goings-on a rather clinical feel.
Hardcore fans of the book may also be disappointed. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who reportedly clashed with author E.L. James over nearly every aspect of the film, brings an arch, irreverent take to the story that makes Fifty Shades Of Grey occasionally resemble the American Psycho of mommy porn. The film benefits greatly from discarding the authorial voice of the book (Anastasia Steele’s inner goddess remains silent, thank God), and where James’ frankly embarrassing dialogue does come through, it’s played for laughs. (There are no “holy crap”s, but there is one “holy cow.”) Ostensibly erotic moments, like a stolen kiss in an elevator, come with a punchline, reinforcing the notion that Taylor-Johnson doesn’t want us to take all this swooning romantic nonsense at face value. It’s got a Danny Elfman score, for fuck’s sake.
However, somewhere around the first sex scene the winking self-awareness begins to recede, and to its detriment, Fifty Shades Of Grey starts taking itself seriously. By the time we actually get to the light BDSM—images of women bound with rope that Ana finds horrifying are more Helmut Newton than Kink.com—the 125-minute running time begins itself to feel like a punishment. That’s also when Taylor-Johnson begins trying to shoehorn a feminist message about sexual agency into what is essentially a fairy tale with MacBook Pros (suave billionaire prince comes to sweep ordinary girl off her feet and tell her she’s special). The results are mixed—it’s more empowering than the book, though that’s not saying much—but you can’t fault her for trying.
Another aspect of the film that might be subversive, provided it was intentional, is Dornan’s performance as 27-year-old billionaire and kinky Prince Charming Christian Grey. Dornan appears to have mistaken lack of affect for mystery, and despite his assertion that he’s “50 shades of fucked up,” he has about three shades, four at best. The character’s creepier, more abusive tendencies, while impossible to remove entirely (can we just mention that he tracks Ana’s location by tracing her phone?), are downplayed, and Christian functions as a sort of well-dressed Wikipedia article about BDSM onto which Ana can project her inner conflict. The Fetlife crowd is right to object to the book’s (and film’s) continued insistence that Christian is kinky because he was abused as a child—somehow his protestations of “It’s just the way I am!” never quite stick—but the cinematic Christian Grey is too toothless to really be threatening.
Dakota Johnson, on the other hand, is the unexpected highlight of the film. She gives Ana a strength of personality that’s lacking in the book, subtly transforming the character from a breathy house-mouse who never makes eye contact into a glamorous, intelligent woman who knows what she wants and has no problem articulating it. The story begins when Ana visits Christian’s office to interview him for her college newspaper, a meeting that wouldn’t have happened if Ana’s roommate were not sick that day. Charmed by her shyness, Christian begins aggressively pursuing Ana, showing up unannounced at her workplace and at the bar where she drunk dials him one sodden night after her final exams. In the book, he maintains dominance throughout, pressuring her to sign an (unrealistic) D/s contract that will make her “his.” One telling change between the book and the film is in the negotiation of the contract between Christian and Ana; a dinner scene where Ana struggles to maintain composure is replaced by a playful “business meeting” proposed and controlled by Ana. She’s stringing him along, not the other way around.
These aspects of the film—making the hot guy (the ostensible draw) the most boring part of the movie while imbuing the female lead with personality, presenting the submissive as the partner truly in control of the situation—could be seen as subversive. They might even be empowering, as much as a story about a woman’s desire to fix a damaged man with the power of love can be. And we’ll see if Fifty Shades Of Grey is the subject of revisionist think pieces in the decades to come. It certainly won’t be remembered for its technical merits, as Taylor-Johnson has crafted a bland, slickly unexceptional-looking film with a soundtrack of cover songs as empty as the echoing expanse of Christian Grey’s high-rise.
The answers to these questions might lie in the ending of the film, which Taylor-Johnson wanted to change from James’ version. (Plot revelations ahead, obviously.) In the film, Ana runs out of Christian’s apartment after he finally, at Ana’s request, shows her the true extent of his sadism. He runs after her, and as the doors of the elevator close, she turns and yells “Stop!”, which turns into an exchange of pleasantries echoing their initial meeting. Taylor-Johnson wanted to change Ana’s assertion to “Red!”, their agreed-upon safe word. It might seem like a small change, but think about that for a minute. In Taylor-Johnson’s version, Ana knows this is all a game, and she can end it at any time. In James’ version, Ana is still in thrall to Christian, a more romantic and, not insignificantly, sequel-friendly version of events. In the end, James won the argument, and the movie stayed true to her vision. Maybe that’s why it fails.