I guess Fifty Shades Of Grey the movie, like E.L. James’s original novel, can now be classed as a phenomenon, given that it has broken various box office records. In the UK the film has proven to be immensely popular with the general public – particularly women of all ages, presuming that the showing I attended is representative of the rest of the country – and its acceptance is the final nail in the coffin for any reviewer or critic mistakenly holding on to the belief that their recommendation (or rather their very specific non-recommendation) actually makes a blind bit of difference to anyone beyond a relatively small circle of readers and fellow cinephiles. A friend of mine suggested on Facebook the other day that Fifty Shades Of Grey was the best thing to happen to movie reviews in years yet, while I admit that some have been snootily amusing, I actually disagree with the statement; I’ve found the level of vitriol sent its way largely tedious, incredibly predictable, and often unfair. (In fact it was something of a relief to read fairer, more balanced reviews online such as this one.)
Regardless of anything negative written or said about it, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film has been packing out entire multiplexes, and while we’re all aware that popularity doesn’t equal greatness in any artistic field, you can’t just dismiss it out of hand. Whatever you may think of the film, and rest assured I’m not going to sit here and argue that it’s a misunderstood meisterwerk, at the end of 2015 it will be counted as one of the most important of the year and as a result I think anyone with an interest in cinema should at least seriously consider seeing it: when the tabloids are banging on about a movie and its stars every day then you can safely assume it is a cultural sign of the times.
Personally I haven’t had this much fun in the cinema for ages. First of all it brought a wry smile to my face to think of recent near-empty screenings of highly-praised films like Whiplash, Foxcatcher and Inherent Vice while surveying the packed room anticipating this largely un-erotic erotic drama, which focuses on the relationship between virginal student reporter Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and ludicrous businessman, amateur pianist, pilot and spanking enthusiast Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). There was a palpable sense of occasion, with several excitable groups of women taking their seats while juggling wine and pizza, which may not sound like a big deal but it’s unheard of at my local multiplex chain; normally it tends to be couple-heavy or mainly dotted with blokes, quietly sitting alone in the dark, as if the building has been mistaken for Serial Killer College or something.
The atmosphere was sparky, if not completely electric, and it’s not hard to see why. I don’t subscribe to the “this is for Gender X while this is for Gender Y” school of thought but it must be acknowledged that films so obviously targeted towards women to this extent are rare (though when they do occasionally arrive they sadly tend to follow this safe, escapist fantasy, catalogue lifestyle template). It’s perhaps somewhat indicative of the general demographic targeted by Hollywood studios – for it is they who still rule the multiplexes – that it felt strange to me to be overwhelmingly outnumbered in this room, in terms of gender, so presumably it felt odd to many of the women attending to be in the majority. I can’t back this up with facts but this looks to be the film of choice for a lot of women who perhaps only go to the cinema once every two or three years; while duly noting the substantial feminist criticism of the film that has appeared in print and online, and without wanting to dismiss it out of hand, it must be said that it doesn’t appear to have affected attendance figures or dimmed enthusiasm all that much.
And that enthusiasm is, frankly, what made Fifty Shades Of Grey a great viewing experience for me. Naturally it peaked – with very British tittering – during the film’s tame sex scenes (seriously, you’re just as likely to get a cheap BDSM-related thrill from watching American Pie), with a spot of knicker-sniffing by Mr. Grey eliciting the loudest shrieks of laughter. People aren’t stupid, and hopefully most are aware that the film’s jam-packed with romantic clichés, that the dialogue is preposterously poor and that the acting is below average at best, but frankly most people sitting near me didn’t seem to give a hoot about its faults: the vast majority, going by noise levels, just wanted to see Jamie Dornan taking his top off (and he does, repeatedly), or experience the thrill of the build up to such a momentous occasion in cinematic history. Meanwhile the film’s silliness, lifted directly from the book, also caused much mirth and left me feeling fairly entertained: in one scene, during their early flirtations, a mildly-drunk Anastasia phones Christian from a bar. Perhaps he mishears something she says as a result of the exaggerated slurring, because his preposterous reaction – the character acts as if she is OD’ing on heroin – is hilarious. I found that as funny as his ‘sensitive’ post-shag piano playing (Chopin, the sap), his sudden barking of “I don’t have 24 hours!” down the phone during a business call and his Milk Tray moments, of which there are too many to list.
I can’t really let Fifty Shades Of Grey off the hook by pursuing this ‘it’s just a bit of harmless fun’ line to the end of the review, though. The whole premise of a rich, powerful man attempting to persuade a woman to sign a contract that is specific about what can and can’t be done in his ‘Red Room’ (“Cross out anal fisting,” says Anastasia, as they negotiate the small print) is disappointingly old-fashioned, particularly as the screenplay fails to properly examine the reasons behind the young tycoon’s demands or controlling state of mind (some brief and convenient allusions to a crack addict mother and a tough, abusive start in life aside). Perhaps they’ll get round to it in the second and third adaptations of James’s bonking trilogy, but I’m not expecting much in the way of further exploration. I can understand why some people feel that the film legitimises sexual abuse and violence towards women but I think there’s something in the argument that the contract plays a major part, given that Anastasia is intelligent and free to sign it or to not sign it or to politely tell Christian Grey to go and fuck himself as she sees fit, albeit under some duress.
Then there’s the odd imbalance of the sex scenes: full-frontal nudity for Johnson but only a split-second glimpse of the upper-reaches of Dornan’s old chap. It’s incredible that in this day and age the male member remains one of cinema’s greatest taboos; why, exactly? It is 2015, isn’t it? For goodness sake if you’re going to make a film today about two people whose relationship is defined by the type of sex they have then include the fucking! Show it! SHOW ME THE MEMBER! SHOW! ME! THE! MEMBER! I LOVE THE WHITE MAN! SHOW ME THE MEMBER! SHOW IT GOING IN AND OUT! IN AND OUT! IN! OUT! IN! OUT! SHAKE IT ALL ABOUT! YOU DO THE HOKEY COKEY AND YOU TURN AROUND, THAT’S WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT! REPEAT! REPEAT! REPEAT! REPEAT UNTIL CHARACTERS AND AUDIENCE MEMBERS HAVE CLIMAXED SIMULTANEOUSLY!
Ahem. Sorry. But come on. Give the clear target audience what they want. At the very least, in clear Hollywood English for any producers or studio execs who have somehow found their way here, you will make even more money.
Obviously I could spend a paragraph or so showing off by recommending a few other S&M-related movies that are infinitely better, some old and some brand spanking new, but they’re listed elsewhere ad infinitum and presumably most people reading this far know what they are. Yes, Fifty Shades Of Grey is a piece of crap, but I should add that it’s not the worst film I’ve ever seen, and it’s certainly not the most sexist. Despite its duffness, like millions of other people, I actually had a good time watching it.
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Written by: Kelly Marcel, EL James
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan
Running Time: 125 minutes