Fifty Shades of Grey – A fan film for females crazy like that. (Film Review)
In a marvellous ‘fuck you’ to the critics (Rotten Tomatoes has Fifty Shades of Grey currently marked down to 28% by the 3/4 male critical audience) Universal refused previews, knowing from the start the film was directed specifically to the fans and more interestingly that the target audience would grow with word of mouth – that is a word of mouth outside of any of the multifarious judgements from the critical community. This marketing strategy follows the trajectory of the book which dripped a slow feed to stardom in the publishing industry, starting out with small-scale indie publishing, as well as the way erotic romance generally dispenses its way into a community that prefered it didn’t exist. It also acknowledges that many fans will have to fight a gauntlet of vitriol from people around them if they want to spend their happy 110 minutes in the dark in secret fantasy, and that some of them will have to sneak in after all the hype has died down. The length of its cinema run will tell us more about its financial value than the opening box office weekend (even though it is already breaking all the records). The films clever rebuff of the critics taps into one of the most subversive things about erotic romance – the genres one fingered salute at every level of the literary establishment in its refusal to go away and more importantly, its refusal to conform.
Given the fact that Sam Taylor-Johnson has made this film for the fans of the book (and the fans of the book only) then the only real question is, how does the film stack up against its much adored source material?
Despite what those who’ve never read the book say, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t as poorly written as the hysteria indicates, and those of us who understand why erotic romance might appear banal to the uninitiated will be thrilled to find Sam Taylor-Johnson has remained very faithful to the passionately loved original text. She’s kept it tasteful and mature, never dipping into a bawdy romp (we love Fifty Shades for not employing the prudish attitudes of porn) nor is she tempted give the intentionally simplistic story the art house treatment. Erotic romance is revealed in its elementary and ironic “truth” and I hope true lovers of erotic romance will enjoy seeing a fine director adapt to the genre and pull great performances from her stars while remaining very close to the expectations of the fans. Erotic Romance fans can be a little like Star Trek fans – there are two kinds of people, those who get it and those who don’t – so it will be a pleasant surprise to find our much-loved book treated with erotic romance respect, out there in the so-called real world.
This is partially due to the triumvirate of Sam Taylor-Johnson, screen writer Kelly Marcel and E.L. James herself, credited as a producer, but who we know had a strong hand in the early stages of the films making. The three women work remarkably well together, bringing qualities very difficult to translate successfully to the screen. Fifty Shades of Grey eschews the tropes of rom-com’s (the culturally sanctioned way to view romance drama) leaning rather in the direction of films like The Thomas Crown Affair(1999 version) and Secretary (2002)- two films that did inspire E.L. James in the original book. It successfully leans very slightly away from The Twilight Saga predecessor films, even though the much-hyped influence remains obvious. Fifty Shades of Grey the film then, becomes its own creature enhancing many of the core values of the book’s structure and tone, while remaining properly devoted to narrative and characterisation. Where Anna’s “inner Goddess” might have grated us at times in the book, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Anna embodies that in a light-hearted independent spirit that plays inside her own happiness with a joy that never appears immature or silly.
Of course erotic romance and indeed all romance novels, generally favour characterisation over most other narrative devices. Book one, as all fan’s know, is Anna’s book, and true to that, Dakota Johnson is fully developed while Jamie Dornan remains a distanced caricature of fantasy. Mr Dornan doesn’t always appear entirely comfortable in his role, but lets hope the films fan-love with smooth him out when the real Christian starts to emerge, as he and Ms. Johnson have signed on for the next two films. They have wonderful chemistry between them, and suitably heat things up in the bedroom using the old bodice-ripper technique of cutting off in foreplay when the US R rating imposes its restrictions. The images of Jamie Dornan in jeans are posited against the camera constantly moving through doorways into rooms (particularly THAT room) implying a “through the bedroom door” aesthetic despite the ratings assumption that women can’t be trusted with Dornan’s nudity but can be trusted with Johnstons. There was some buzz about a second version, with more nudity and an NC-17 certificate a year or so ago – not sure what happened there.
But they are an appropriate pairing, bringing to life the unstoppable chemistry that dominates both characters in the books and throbs at the heart of why the books are so impossibly sexy. Dakota Johnson is a superb Anna, interpreting many of the nuances of Anna’s internal monologue physically so that those fans who’ve read the books many times will enjoy seeing well-known moments brought to the big screen, and feel the all important she’s-my-best-friend connection. Her emotional development that accompanies her sexual development is delicately nuanced and yet engagingly clear as she responds as much to herself as she does to Christian Grey. As those of us who love the books know, Anna is a wonderful example of female empowerment, not the reverse as the ill-informed claim, and you will be pleased to find Dakota Johnson knows it too. She also wears the pubic hair that we loved her for in the book.
As to be expected, a book as rich and dense with ideas as Fifty Shades of Grey can’t translate all of them to the screen. A major point of difference is the music. The famous ‘Spem in Alium’ has been replaced by the hot Beyonce track ‘Crazy in Love’ and this change represents a consistency throughout the film. The sound track doesn’t take away from the film but it does impose a contemporary sheen over the story when E.L James great sound track went in the other direction. I attended the film with two writer friends (journalist and editor) and both loved the change in soundtrack – as did I. I guess this will come back to preferences. I’m a big Weeknd and Ellie Goulding fan, not to mention my thrill when the film opened with Annie Lennox, so I rode that wave very easily. I’ll be very interested to hear what fans think of that change.
So, my final takeaway is that I loved the film and have almost no problems with it. Most impressive of all is the way it navigates the all-important line between ironically not taking itself too seriously and the this-is-how-the-world-should-be arrogance that makes us love erotic romance so much, and was so successfully realised in the book. Even those of us in the romance world who didn’t enjoy the book, might find there is a lot to enjoy in the film.
Go and have fun!