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Sadomasochism without the sex

Tom Shone reviews “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Tom Shone | February 11th 2015

“I’ve always been good at people,” declares Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, pictured) at the start of “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Audiences will have to decide for themselves whether he qualifies as one himself. Businessman, multibillionaire, philanthropist, he sits behind his desk at the top of a sleek skyscraper, named after himself like Trump Tower, except that everything here is not gold but tasteful graphite. Even the bodyguards have designer stubble. “I exercise control in all things,” he tells Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who has come to interview him for her student newspaper, although the talk soon turns to personal matters. “I don’t do romance,” he tells her, staring hard at her through his eyebrows, his usual expression, narrowing his eyes still tighter when she tells a joke. He doesn’t really “do” humour. He doesn't do much, in fact. “I don’t do the girlfriend thing,” he says. “I don’t do the dating and movies.” As Adam Ant might have interjected at this point, “Don't drink, don't smoke…what do you do?”

That the answer will be well known to the readers of E.L. James’s original book is evident from the elaborate tease the director Sam Taylor-Johnson puts on in the first, richly enjoyable hour of her adaptation. “I enjoy various…physical pursuits,” says Grey mysteriously. The audience titters while Anastasia does what she always does in moments of high drama: she bites her lip. “You’re biting your lip,” says Grey, not one to miss that sort of thing, or else possibly jealous that she, rather than he, is doing the biting. Taylor-Johnson has taken great care in casting her heroine: soft of voice, absent-minded of manner, Dakota Johnson manages to spill into scenes seeming both sleepy and flustered at the same time, as if she had gone to bed the night before knowing she was to star in a movie about the pleasures of bondage, but had overslept and was now keen to get up to speed.

What Christian does like to do—or certainly what he talks endlessly about doing, drawing up 20-page contracts which elaborate his desires in power-point detail—is to be found in what he calls his “play room”: red-velvet-lined, vaulted, and kitted out with slings, harnesses, handcuffs, whips, and all manner of equipment seemingly on loan from the local circus. “I thought you meant your Xbox and stuff,” says Anastasia, fuelling the delicious sense that both she and her director are in eye-rolling cahoots against the resolute humourlessness of James’s book. “Two things. I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard,” he tells her, levelling her with a particularly intense eyebrow-piercer. “And the second?” asks Anastasia, after a pause of such sustained magnificence that it’s hard not to fall just a little bit in love with her. I’m not sure how Johnson’s career in middle-of-the-road sadomasochistic fantasy is going to shape up, but somebody ought to cast her in a comedy immediately.

We never find out what the second thing is. We don’t even really see much of the first. Our young couple make out in an elevator like Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction”, and then she makes him breakfast in one of his shirts like Kim Basinger in “9½ Weeks”. Of actual sex we see only the usual gasping silhouettes, clawed bed-sheets, ice cubes to the navel and primly avoided pubic areas. “Odd doesn't even begin to cover it,” Anastasia tells her room-mate, but in fact “odd” is the politest possible spin you could put on the dreary rotation of soft-core images paraded before us in the name of Rochesterian carnal blow-out. Say what you like about James’s book but it was at least honest filth, with its fingers sunk into some genuinely messy areas of human desire. The film’s view of sexuality seems plucked from the same glossy brochure as Grey’s garage of gleaming Lincolns and fleet of helicopters: it’s a consumer choice, a lifestyle option, a trimming of titillation for a young girl-about-town.  

You can’t fault Taylor-Johnson for regrooming James’s tale as a neo-feminist empowerment manual—she’s at great pains to emphasise that Anastasia remains in control at every turn—but isn't loss of control precisely the point? For all we hear about his desires, Grey’s fantasy life remains strangely without heat. He is barely a character, more a chiselled avatar of male human hotness, so busy channelling the fantasies of his (presumed) female audience, that as a dominator he’s something of a wash-out, pestering Anastasia meekly for most of the film about signing that contract, while beguiling her with glider trips, champagne, peacock feathers and piano recitals. For someone who doesn't “do” romance he seems to do nothing but. By the time Grey knuckles down to some actual spanking, storm clouds have gathered and a tone of funereal tragedy has enveloped proceedings, with Anastasia recoiling in shock and teary-eyed indignation. This couple needs to communicate. 

Fifty Shades of Grey is out in Britain and America on February 13th

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