By Tom Demerly.
If you made it to this review, you’re somehow curious. And that is the premise that Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey works on: curiosity.
If you want me to tell you that Fifty Shades of Grey was a bad movie, then leave now.
Fifty Shades of Grey is every guilty dessert you’ve ever had, and crave again. A sticky, corny, breathless mix of horny inference and naughty voyeurism combined with a visual and aural experience that is incredibly satisfying for those open to admit it. For everyone else, Disney is releasing a new version of Cinderella on March 13.
But Fifty Shades hits all the grown-up hot buttons of Cinderella, Titanic, The Beach, Dracula and every other cliché’ romantic theme, and it spins these clichés freshly enough for two very rapt hours. On a cold winter’s night, that is pretty damn hot.
Firstly, Fifty Shades of Gray is a visual treat. With beautiful, escapist sets, wardrobes and music this is the 120+ minute escape from reality we buy a movie a ticket for. Every detail is at least well done, some so well done they are breathless. And while the bondage and dominance themes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, everyone but the most severely repressed will find naughty, voyeuristic fun in this corny fantasy. Even Anastasia’s Steele’s lilting and gentle voice is a method of seduction that punctuates the movie. The scene where Christian straps Anastasia into the helicopter is absolutely incendiary.
Casting is also superb, with Dakota Johnson interpreting Anastasia with incredible accuracy and function and Jamie Dornan as a perfect mix of hot, demented, tormented and tender as Christian Grey.
This is a movie of gems, from a beautiful scene where Christian Grey takes Anastasia for a ride in a glider to a lilting dance scene where wardrobe, music (Frank Sinatra, of course), set and characters make movie history. All of these scenes are stolen clichés, and all of them are done brilliantly. Interestingly enough, the bondage sex scenes really don’t push limits or get very racy, they just have a breathy inference that does the trick.
The mastery in this film includes a use of silence that is captivating, using it as an awkward negative space that anyone who has ever suffered obsession has felt.
A packed theater for a 10 PM showing contained only about 10 men- in the entire movie theater. The assembled hen party alternately giggled during the sex scenes and was in rapt silence during the heavy parts when the audience hung on the dialogue in virtual bondage- with no safe word. It’s pretty safe to assume that PTA meetings and knitting circles were poorly attended the night Fifty Shades opened.
There is one disturbing sequence in the movie, when boundaries are bent just a little too far, and the movie isn’t fun there. But even this heavy moment can be forgiven- only in artistic context- as an appliance of punctuation in the story line.
For those who are wary of the movie and fear it crosses lines that advocate abuse, I can respect and identify with that perspective. The movie is about power trips and control, and those are things easily demented. But this movie is also about tender themes of communication and honesty, and to lose those against the sultry and pornographic backdrop is to not get everything you paid for in the story. That said, for victims of abuse, this is not the right movie and should be avoided. The story itself does not endorse non-consensual abuse, and makes repeated and clear statements to that effect. And recall that there are more than a few epic and noteworthy romances that challenge boundaries and cross lines, from Gone With The Wind to Casablanca.
The movie does exploit gender role stereotypes, and there are victims on both sides; the innocent simple girl and the tormented powerful man. If you are offended by stereotypes then take equal offense at each. Both are exploited here. That is a function of great fiction. Remember- this is fiction. The fact is people control or attempt to control each other in many ways in relationships; this story expands on those themes. Its over-emphasized delivery of these themes is what gives it such unusual candor, and make it such a spectacle.
The inspiration of this story includes themes from the life of Howard Hughes and borrows snippets from little known cult classics like the much more disturbing Boxing Helena from 1993. This is simply an updated compendium of all these themes. It’s been a while since we had something like this, so audiences are ripe for Fifty Shades.
What is so well done about Fifty Shades of Grey is its wide band of erotic frequencies. The hottest scenes have neither nudity or sex, although there is plenty of that too, and it is pretty darn good. Perhaps some of the most powerful scenes include a brand of honesty and openness almost never seen in real life relationships, and seeing that is incredibly hot. The “contract negotiation” scene is a fantasy I wager everyone has wished for. There is also the dramatic back-and-forth of control, and the concession that having it is usually an illusion, and always ephemeral. In that regard, Fifty Shades of Grey is a documentary.
Ultimately you are either a fan of this romantic theme or you aren’t. For fence sitters I wager Fifty Shades of Grey will win some people over to the dark side and sell a lot of bondage gear. If it’s not your thing, avoid it. But if you are curious, then submit to the cliché and caricature of Fifty Shades of Grey and get ready to be strapped down for two hours with a racing heart on a wild, romantic and naughty ride.