What it's about:
Based on the mega-selling “literary” sensation by E.L. James, Anastasia Steele is a shy university student who becomes sexually and romantically involved with the coldly controlling Christian Grey, an elusive billionaire bachelor whose many dark and kinky secrets threaten to torpedo their blossoming relationship before it even begins.
What we thought:
Cards on the table time: I have not read the vast, vast majority of the Fifty Shades trilogy, nor do I plan on doing so, but I have read a chapter or two out of morbid curiosity and have heard enough about this huge phenomenon (not least of all through hilarious celebrity readings of the sex scenes by the likes of Gilbert Godfrey and George Takei) that I really shouldn't have been surprised by just how uncomfortably wrong-headed its story turned out to be when laid out on screen. And yet, though I actually think there is a lot to like about the film, I was shocked by just how... uncomfortable I was by the film's central relationship - which is sort of a problem since that's kind of what the whole thing's about in the first place.
To be absolutely clear, this isn't a prudish response to the film's relatively tame but quite, um, effective sex scenes, nor to its attempted exploration of BDSM sexuality, but is a deep unease with how Fifty Shades of Grey uses its apparent misunderstanding of this particular fetish (most people who are actually into this stuff in real life apparently despise the way it has been portrayed in James' novels) to romanticise a relationship that is built on seriously questionable power-play dynamics and sexual politics.
To put it simply, Christian Grey is a Grade-A creep who we're supposed to see as a compelling romantic lead simply because he is a) to quote Zoolander, really, really, incredibly good looking and, more importantly, b) richer than God. He's a manipulative, self-involved control freak that I could easily buy as a villainous figure (let's just say that it's interesting that I followed Fifty Shades with a press screening of Nightcrawler, the upcoming dark, disturbing psycho-thriller that's all about exploring the mind of a sociopath) but just flat out doesn't work as a romantic figure. Worse, by suggesting that because our young heroine is destined to ultimately “fix” this “bad boy”, it's perfectly OK for her to fall for him, the film bases its entire premise on some of the worst, most unflattering stereotypes of women imaginable.
What's really infuriating though, is that unlike the notoriously trashy (and quite badly written) novels, the film is a production of often extremely high quality. It features a surprisingly decent script by Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr Banks) that jettisons most of the the books' infamously crappy dialogue and narration (oh my!) and is directed with real proficiency by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy). Throw in some impressively evocative cinematography and a score by Denny Elfman and you have all the makings of a seriously great motion picture.
Worst (or is that best) of all though is Dakota Johnson, who is simply terrific as Anastasia Steele. She perfectly captures the role's required balance of sultry sexiness on the one hand and virginal innocence on the other and she brings a real lightness of touch and comedic timing to what could easily have been one giant cliché of a character, while bringing some real emotional heft to the film's otherwise ludicrous dramatic confrontations. Idiot naysayers who, before even seeing the film, deemed her wrong or, haha, “too ugly” for the role: prepare to eat your bitter, bitter words. She's so good, in fact, that I almost feel like its worth sitting through the film's questionable narrative for her alone.
Now, obviously, this review is going to make absolutely no difference one way or another to anyone anywhere. Judging by the pre-release ticket sales (in South Africa alone, it is apparently entirely sold out all the way until Tuesday!), just about everybody and their grandmother will be seeing Fifty Shades of Grey. Apparently all of them this weekend. But those who don't have any intention of seeing it, really, really, really have no intention of seeing it.
What's strange though, is that for the two or three of you left who aren't sure whether to bother with it, my recommendation is not the definitive “hell NO!” that I was expecting. I mean, it's really kind of awful but it's awful in a way that's honestly quite nicely made. And, again, Dakota Johnson. If the cognitive dissonance of a well made piece of crap doesn't do it for you, check it out for Dakota Johnson.
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