Crimes Against Passion
You know, I take my duties as monitor of all things cinematic for the Post quite seriously, not that this actually extends to my feeling obliged to go and see every film up for major Oscar nominations. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but it is hard to deny that one of the most high-profile releases of recent weeks has ventured into territory which is, perhaps, a little unusual and somewhat challenging. I refer, of course, to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.
To be honest, I was a bit concerned about the visual of a spud-faced middle-aged man turning up unaccompanied to watch the great sado-masochistic sexcapade of our time, but as luck would have it a colleague was also keen to see it and more than willing to act as Protective Camouflage. (Although she did keep referring to it as Fifty Sheds, which made me a bit worried she didn’t understand what was involved.) And so it was that we proudly made our way to the front of the queue of young families waiting to see Shaun the Sheep: the Movie. It was obviously very important to make it clear we were there as high-minded cineastes and not weirdos in search of a cheap thrill.
'Two for Sex Dungeon, please,' I said cheerfully. Well, we all have the occasional Freudian slip, don't we.
After a bit of a double-take from the woman on the till we got down to the normal rigmarole of choosing seats and so forth. Although, we were told, this wasn't that big a deal as no-one else was actually going to be watching it with us. Something quite odd seems to be going on here: this was the most sparsely-attended weekend matinee I can remember going to (someone else turned up during the trailers, but it was just three of us in a big theatre), which I would usually take as a sign the film was spectacularly tanking, but apparently it has already recouped its relatively modest budget ten times over and a sequel is due out next year. Did it really do such good business on its opening weekend?
Hey ho. Fifty Shades of Grey is, of course, based on E.L. James' astonishingly successful piece of retooled slash fanfic, which everyone was talking about a few years ago. (I worked with someone who was reading it and insisted on reading out choice selections at mealtimes, and to say that it was like listening to contract law is probably an insult to legal jargonese.) I note that James herself is producing this film and has actually joined the PGA, despite having no previous experience beyond British TV admin. (Maybe I'll join the PGA too, it'll look good on my blog.)
The film opens with a montage of clouds scudding across the sky, so that was a few shades of grey sorted out in the first few seconds. Before long it settles down to being the story of suave, enigmatic, 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and his relationship with mousy, nervous young student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), whom he meets when she interviews him for the college newspaper. Things go haltingly at first, for she is (wait for it) fifty grades of shy, and he seems to evade her questions, especially the one about his hobbies. 'I enjoy a range of physical activities,' he says. Hmm, what could he be on about?
Later on he turns up at the hardware store where she works, intent on buying a selection of rope, masking tape, and so forth. Cripes! They keep bumping into each other until Christian Grey makes his intentions properly known (once Anastasia has signed her non-disclosure agreement, that is).
It turns out that Christian Grey is... um, well, how can I put this? His tastes are sort of bracingly robust, if you know what I mean. He does indeed have his own sex dungeon in his luxury apartment, although it looks more like the interior of a gymkhana suppliers than anything too kinky, and he would quite like to put Anastasia in it and do all sorts of things to her.
She, unsurprisingly, has her doubts, but there is a long film to be filled and so it takes her a hell of a while to actually make her mind up about this. Also, Christian Grey seems to be just as big a fan of legal paperwork as he is of sado-masochism, because he has an extremely lengthy contract he wants her to review and sign before they properly get down to business. There is even a pre-business business meeting dedicated to this, which is quite possibly the weirdest context in which you will ever hear the words [redacted], [definitely redacted], or [so redacted you wouldn’t believe]. But I digress. Will Anastasia sign the contract and take up residence in the sex dungeon? Or will she manage to break through Grey's reserve and engage him in something resembling a more conventional romantic relationship?
All right, so from a certain point of view this is one of the most extreme movies ever to get a mainstream release from a major studio, with all the marketing and attendant advertising designed to emphasise how throbbingly sexy it all is. (Some of the ads were for things I had to ask Protective Camouflage about, as I had no idea what they were.) Isn't it all so shocking and transgressive, seems to be the unspoken subtext. Isn't it all so overpoweringly erotic?
Um, well, no it isn't, kids. The Emperor has no clothes on, not unlike Dakota Johnson for long sections of the film (as a result I now feel better acquainted with her nipples than those of any other person in history, including myself). It's just not sexy: after a while your heart starts to sink every time they decamp to the sex dungeon for another distinctly unengaging romp. I found myself wondering just who kept the sex dungeon so spotlessly clean. Does Christian Grey get busy with the Mr Muscle and the Dyson every day after his latest playmate goes home? Has his cleaning lady also signed an NDA? That glossy flogging table must need a lot of polishing.
The main problem is that the films this most reminds me of are the Harry Potter adaptations and the Hunger Games movies, not because of the subject matter, but because it has been very carefully made not to spoil a potentially massive cash cow. This being a film aimed at a mainstream audience, there are limits to what it can show, and indeed in some ways it is notably less explicit than some other, less contentious films. Mr Grey keeps his trousers on most of the time, for instance.
Ironically, this isn't as big a problem as it might sound, for in many ways Fifty Shades of Grey is crushingly conventional. If you extract all the stuff with the leather straps, the whips, and the spanking, you're just left with a rather gooey and familiar story about a shy young woman who captures the attention of a powerful, attractive man with commitment issues: It's the stuff of countless blandly anonymous romances, wish-fulfilment for the (dare I say it) undemanding female reader. The bondage is just there to give the illusion of something spicy and a bit different. (Anastasia Steele's attraction to Christian Grey has less to do with his 'dangerous' tendencies than the fact he's an improbably handsome young billionaire. If the sado-masochist was a middle-aged ugly bloke in a council flat, this story wouldn't work at all.)
Of course, this does lead to the biggest problem with the film, namely the ending (or absence of one). On paper it looks like a triumph for female self-empowerment, with Anastasia deciding the sex dungeon perhaps isn't her cup of tea after all, and dumping Mr Grey. But while this makes a certain sort of sense, it's playing against the whole thrust of the story, which feels like it should be the one where they break up, only for him to realise he really does love her after all and makes a big gesture to win her back, prior to the happy ever after. This film omits everything after the break up, or possibly defers it all to the sequel. The result is a conclusion which just feels annoyingly abrupt and unsatisfying.
The consensus on Fifty Shades of Grey is that 'it's better than the book, not that that's saying much'. Not having read the book, I can't comment, but the book would have to be pretty comprehensibly dreadful to be much worse than this. I have got more pleasurable erotic frissons out of watching Carry On films than I did from Fifty Shades of Grey: this film actually manages to make the conjugal act look unappealingly dull. I'm not sure if it's a crime against cinema, but it's certainly a crime against sex. Yuck.