Few films will be more misunderstood, dismissed out of hand and viewed with loaded expectations as Sam Taylor-Johnson’s pristine adaptation of E.L. James’ trashy novel.
Whatever you’ve heard about this modern-day fairytale, it’s unlikely that the words funny, character-driven or multifaceted were used to describe it, but in the hands of screenwriter Kelly Marcel (and an uncredited Patrick Marber) the tale becomes one focused purely on the experience and agency of protagonist Anastasia Steele (as compellingly interpreted by Dakota Johnson).
Johnson seems to have answered a casting call for actress who can look and act like a younger Charlotte Gainsbourg, and it’s a curious experience for anyone who has watched Lars Von Trier’s fearlessly graphic Nymphomaniac to see this efficiently shot and surprisingly tender introduction to BDSM and power plays.
For those who haven’t had the ineradicable experience of reading James’ fan-fiction source novel, some backstory: Anastasia Steele is an English Literature major at an implausibly bright and clean Washington State University. She shares an apartment with her best friend and works evenings at a hardware store.
Opening scenes of her nervously interviewing Zuckerbergian billionaire Christian Grey set up a power dynamic whose shifts drive the film. Their mutual fascination is rendered curiosity from Anastasia and as courting/stalking from Christian who seems to need to demonstrate a near obsessive respect, which she openly mocks.
Wooed with steely gazes, first editions of Thomas Hardy books and helicopter rides, by the time we’re lead into Christian’s ‘playroom’, Anastasia has been established as a multi-dimensional character with a sense of humour and a healthy skepticism about this hunky capitalist behemoth with a penchant for sadomasochism.
Those coming to Fifty Shades of Grey for kinky sex or expecting to be outraged by violence against women alone will likely be disappointed. The film is far more interested in portraying (without exploring) female sensuality, power dynamics and using the relationship as a playground to view the consequences of unbridled consumption born from a childhood abuse.
As Radical Alliance of Women (RAW) state on the posters they’ve pasted around Melbourne asking people to boycott this film, “Violence against women has no grey area”. That is unquestionable, and it’s something the film is acutely aware of. At every stage Christian wants to be assured that Anastasia is in control, that she can leave whenever she wants, that her consent is essential and that she knows the safe words. She also has a happy family to return to and a supportive and loving best friend, essential to keeping the film’s fairy-tale world intact.
Unlike one of RAW’s reasons for boycotting the film – “Paints manipulative and controlling relationships as ‘romantic’ – Christian’s sadistic tendencies are never portrayed as such. In fact, it’s easy to imagine people who integrate role-play into their healthy relationships objecting to the way BDSM is treated as its literal opposite.
This film never seeks to tackle the big questions at its heart however. Anastasia and Christian’s relationship is drawn as a teen romance – all realistic barriers are gone and obsessions can run free. Money is no object, emotions and desires fully expressed, other relationships are marginalised to little or no effect, and running a highly profitable multinational corporation takes barely any actual time or effort. The story is far more interested in Anastasia’s gradual opening to Christian’s darker world of pleasure. He is there to serve her and everything, he assures her, is for her pleasure.
Whether gliding over the farmland of Georgia, following a peacock feather as it is dragged along Anastasia’s contorting body or holding a rigid frame as Christian moodily plays some sub-Chopin compositions on his grand piano, Seamus McGarvey’s camera is given a freedom rarely seen in a romantic drama. Its muted palette perfectly rendering the disquiet and unease as the driving force behind Christian’s behaviour occasionally makes itself known.
You could come away from this film thinking, ‘nice guys suck’ or ‘perhaps I’ll go get some rope and cable ties and see what this is all about’, but it’s unlikely. This is a modern day fairy-tale that tackles its few dark corners with all the sincerity of an episode of Gossip Girl. Which is fine – in fact, like Gossip Girl, it’s a lot better than most people think. Taylor-Johnson could have made trash into trash, but, with the help of Dakota Johnson’s performance, she’s made a genuinely artful and intriguing film.