'50 Shades of Grey' maintains integrity of novel and that is a very very bad thing

Anastasia or Ana (Dakota Johnson) has already met the man of her dreams, Christian Gray (Jamie Dornan), when she awakes in his bed after he “rescued” her from being drunk at a club. Ignoring the red flags of his already insatiable desire to control her actions, her thoughts and her life, on her bedside table instructive notes are arranged as a faint evocation of the vials Alice comes face with in Wonderland. Even on a level of subconscious, we understand the written commands on paper as an invitation into the world of perversion and secrets, and it is a journey that Ana willingly undertakes - or so it seems. This initial moment of accepting fantasy, of diving into the abyss of sexual discovery are very quickly discarded. For every step in the right direction that 50 Shades of Grey takes, it takes about a dozen steps backwards.

50 Shades of Grey is a boy meets girls kind of story, just this time the boy is a billionaire with a kink for s&m. This added detail is what has apparently thrust this otherwise conventional story into the popular culture, enticing a largely female audience hungry for sex and romance. The film is intrinsically interesting due to its insane popularity in spite of its inane storyline and rather conventional unconventional sex.Hinged so completely on fantasy, some flourishes of the film anticipate the potential for a phantasmagoria of ecstasy and pain, while the film itself betrays any teasing and anticipation by being puritanical and muddled.

Grey’s environment and mystique is metallic and pristine. For a man engaged in such culturally-deemed “dirty” sex, he is first and foremost a control freak who clearly believes in the importance of keeping up appearances. This makes his first encounter with Ana so powerful, and ultimately entranced in some deep level patriarchal violence. Everything about this sequence is meant to make Anna seem diminutive, from her school-girl outfit, her passive smallness, and ultimately her very nature all clash against Christian Grey’s imposing physicality. Grappling with the apparent ideal that women want to be coddled, and made to feel petite, for a moment the film wrestles with that ideal, vaguely questioning it against the cold industrial nature of the locale. There is no real romance in this sequence, save for the doe-eyes of a young girl, and the environment betrays nearly all sense of warmth or affection that one can ever expect from romance. This fleeting moment of irony will fold back into the film in passing waves, but will never quite settle in.

It is fantastically funny when Gray tells Anna that he sees the potential in her, forcing - however briefly - the audience to muse on what sexual potential really means. These are the moments where you feel that if Sam Taylor-Johnson had been allowed more creative control over the production (the backstage antics, feuds and conflicts have been well documented, and unfortunately worked very much against director), the film could have been far more interesting. There is a sincere desire in the depths of the film’s making to really come to terms with the popularity of its source material by really tearing it apart. So deeply entranced in the values of patriarchy and even more deeply in abuse (not because s&m is violent, but because manipulation and coercion is), one wonders with a more deft adaptation if the philosophy that s&m deconstructs gender roles through parody could have been explored…

The much-discussed “20 minutes of sex scenes” are barely worth noting as they are mostly cross-faded into mental obscurity. There is little sense of mood, anticipation or action as the style of these scenes leans on one shot fading into another with little dialogue. There is a creeping sense that the sexual sessions may be lasting hours, days or merely minutes. Perhaps the time frame is supposed to feel eternal, mirroring the characters losing themselves to sexual bliss but instead it stamps out any kind of memorability of opportunity for exploration. Within these montage sequences we have brief moments of promise, during the slow-groove ‘Crazy in Love’ cover scene there is a small sequence of shots beginning with Christian Gray unbuttoning pants, revealing his pubic hair and then some deep thrusts work. This is just a few seconds in 20 minutes of sex scenes though, and it is also worth noting it’s the only sex scene in which the choice pop song works more or less.

Taking at face value, 50 Shades of Grey lives up to its promise as a horrifying tale of a Prince Charming gone awry, a man who is more sadistic in spirit than in desire. Try as it may, the film cannot overcome the pitfalls and discomforts of Grey’s emotionally abusive and manipulative actions. There does remain some level of subtext but it is bludgeoned into the background by an overeager writer (if Sam Taylor-Johnson is to be believed, which I’m inclined to do in this case, E.L. James is impossible to work with and pushed for many of the film’s worst elements including the ending) and likely people even higher up who wanted to play it “safe” by maintaining the integrity of the novel’s portrayal of romanticized-abuse.

- Justine Smith is the additional content editor for the CJLO Magazine. You can follow her on twitter @redroomrantings