Fifty Shades of Grey

February 28, 2015
Dakota Johnson in 'Fifty Shades of Grey' (2015)
Dakota Johnson in 'Fifty Shades of Grey' (2015)

Fifty Shades of Grey must be a deeply reassuring experience for anyone who believes western society is hopelessly mired in depravity. That such a confection might be seen as ‘erotic’ suggests we are more wholesome, more innocent, than might ever have been suspected. That it should be examined for underlying messages by psychologists and sociologists proves our civilisation is not abandoned to cynicism.

When I saw this much-hyped blockbuster at the Randwick Ritz, 95% of the audience were 20-something females. A party atmosphere reigned. Before the screening, a lone male snapped a selfie against a wall-to-wall backdrop of young women. As the show unfolded the titters and whispers occasionally erupted into laughter.

Not only should Fifty Shades of Grey be considered a comedy, it’s almost family viewing. In comparison a film such as What We Did on Our Holiday is dark and challenging.

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s style is so transparently formulaic it teeters (knowingly?) on the brink of parody. It feels as if she directed the film with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a fairy tale adapted for the corporate world, a re-working of The Story of O for the business pages. Mr. Grey’s office and apartment are as bland as department store displays, while the entire movie is one long exercise in product placement. I’ve read that the dialogue is a big improvement on the novel, which is an alarming thought.

All the elements of a fairy tale are present. Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia Steele (Ana) is the Cinderella/Little Red Riding Hood type: the ingénue who exerts a fascination on Prince Charming, or excites the appetites of the Big Bad Wolf. We know the fairies are on her side when she gets a parking spot directly in front of the headquarters of Grey Enterprises.

Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey is a combination of prince, wolf, and Merlin the magician. By some unknown stroke of genius he has become a billionaire by the age of 27, although it can’t be because of his dazzling conversational skills. In his first meeting with Ana he uses the word “incentivize” and tells her that the harder he works the luckier he gets. Now that’s an original thought!

Mr. Grey is an eligible bachelor who has never been photographed with a woman, but when he lays eyes on Ana, who comes to interview him for a university assignment, it is lust at first sight. Surrounded by long-legged blonde assistants in tight business suits, he goes bananas at the sight of a student in an old cardigan.

Soon he is popping up everywhere, while warning Ana that he’s not right for her. He sends her first editions of Thomas Hardy novels and takes her riding in his private helicopter. The poor girl is swept off her feet – literally. But even while he’s making these romantic gestures, Mr. Grey keeps saying: “I don’t do romance”.

What he does is a kind of Vogue Living version of S & M. His beautifully-appointed “play room” is equipped with a designer selection of cuffs, ropes, whips and canes. He wants virginal Ana to become his “submissive”, assuring her this is all for her personal pleasure. But first, would she mind signing this very thick contract? It looks like something prepared by the Goldman Sachs legal team.

Ana is not really into S & M, but she’s willing to give it a go because she’s fallen in love with Mr. Grey. She even hopes he might become “normal” one day, if she can get to the bottom of the deep, dark secret that has made him a weirdo. For this she will probably have to wait until the second sequel.

Dakota Johnson has a winsome, girl-next-door quality that might be expected to appeal to the man who has everything, but it’s hard to feel positive about Jamie Dornan, a chiselled hunk with the personality of a Ken doll. Everything about Mr. Grey lives up to his name, from his expensive but conservative dress sense to the colourless collection of contemporary artworks that adorn his walls. This sad fellow has apparently taken up S & M as a way of adding a little spice into his dreary, billionaire existence. He is a crasher.

Even Mr. Grey’s perversions are lukewarm. Any genuine devotees of these dark arts will be laughing at the namby-pamby way our hero goes about his task. He’s so obsessed with his contract he seems like Ana’s lawyer rather than her lover. He is more therapist than sadist. Ana does well not to fall asleep.

While the experts assure us there are many people who get the keenest pleasure from being hit with a stick, or hitting someone else with one, if you’re not that way inclined it all looks pretty silly. There’s probably nothing harder to understand than other people’s fetishes, which invariably appear ridiculous or disgusting.

Mr. Grey is not a convincing advertisement for the S & M lifestyle. The unspoken subtext is that his sadism is one of the reasons for his success in business, but he would be eaten alive by the Wolf of Wall Street. Now there’s an intriguing idea for a sequel…

Fifty Shades of Grey
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
Written by Kelly Marcel, from a novel by E.L. James
Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dorman, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Marcia Gay Harden
USA/Canada, rated ??, 125 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 28th February, 2015.