Critical to the 2012 success of E.L. James’ "Fifty Shades of Grey" was its brave stance on silent fetishes. Like Joey Hill’s "Natural Law" and Kate Hearce’s "Simply Sexual," James' novel explores our hidden perversions and examines how these perversions ironically keep us sane (or not). It may not be a landmark of a novel, but its accessibility and language brings us a fair look at what is beyond our sexual limits.
When it was launched on print some couple of years back, we still remember how many of our friends silently read James’ initial installment. Some hated it, but others became obsessed. Like our unexplainable perversions, we unknowingly submitted to our dark sides and allowed James to tickle our fantasies. Like it or not, sex sells.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s "Fifty Shades of Grey" faithfully submits to such fandom by bringing to the screen James’ erotic novel. It is crisp, tasteful, however, surprisingly bashful. Though it presents the same complex characters from the novel, it somehow veers away from the daring theme of its source. Whatever triumph it has on its visuals, it pays dearly in its inhibition to experiment on the wild adventures that it promised.
Anastasia Steele, a college senior, gets to chance to meet the mysterious billionaire Christian Grey. As early as their first meeting, Christian develops an interest in Anastasia. He pursues her, and she easily gives in. But as their relationship gets deeper, Christian will need to share with Anastasia his other side. He will have to open the locked, basement doors and share with her his darkest interests, and it is up with Anastasia if she can embrace the totality of the man she is just beginning to adore.
Jaime Dornan seems comfortable with his character as the sexually affable Christian Grey. His soft features offer a magnetic Mr. Grey on screen. Dornan is masterful in his controlled and measured movements. In him, we see Christian as a restrained, yet the controlling master that he sees in himself. Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele is a talent in the film who actually emerges. She recreates a likeable Ana whose innocence and fancies at the start are anything but rare. When faced with the kind of choice that Christian offers, she transforms into a cautious one -- questioning and sometimes rational.
Taylor-Johnson’s screen direction looks appealing at first glance. Sprinkling the first act with Freudian undertones, she effectively plants these innuendos in preparation for development. Tall buildings, standing straight and erect; Anastasia’s floral shirt and her inverted horseshoe-like pendant; Grey’s freshly sharpened pencils from his desk, later pointed to Ana’s lower lips, are just few preparatory devices enough to excite the assuming viewer. Here, Taylor strategically conveys that there is much to expect in the succeeding acts. Through controlled direction, she manages to establish Anastasia’s blissful innocence amidst a male-dominated environment, and at the same time, bringing dashing Christian into being.
But the succeeding acts fail to sustain the initial energy. After Christian declares his interest in Ana and how he wishes to continue their unlikely relationship, everything else went downhill. Christian becomes the painfully charming suitor, excruciatingly reminding me of the vampire Edward Cullen of the "Twilight" saga. Moreso, conflicted Ana becomes too irrational, unpredictable and illogical. Her inconsistencies toward Christian weaken her development as a central character. Though Johnson still manages to sustain her performance, the direction watered down her character’s complexity.
The film also lacks the bravery to explore the themes of sexual deviation. I somehow felt that the film limits itself to the confines of tasteful entertainment. Yes, the sex scenes are watchable, but it somehow missed the point of perversion. But that’s just me. It was clean, delicate, careful and guarded, that at some point the scenes become too stagy and choreographed. Funny, but like bounded-Anastasia, Taylor-Johnson’s hands are also tied; though this time, to conventionality. That, I think, is a consequence of mainstream.
Come Valentine’s Day, one can still choose to take a peek behind Christian Grey’s closed doors and see his Anastasia bounded and bathed in soft red light. "Fifty Shades of Grey," despite its lack of character, depth and bravery to further explore fetishes and fixations, is still a love story between two adults consenting to an unconventional relationship. It might not be a "Belle De Jour" (1967) or a "9½ Weeks" (1986), but it is still extremely watchable and remarkably entertaining. Yes, it’s good while it lasts.
The author is a freelance organizational and career development consultant. During his free time, Orly writes and maintains his arts/literary blog www.jellicleblog.com.