Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
FIFTY SHADES FREED
We’re six years into the juggernaut that is the FIFTY SHADES franchise, and the cinematic flogging has not stopped. Author E.L. James probably had no idea that her TWILIGHT-based fanfic would amount to more than a niche way for women to get their rocks off. Despite the fact there are many far better authors and novels available, she propelled erotica into the modern mainstream, making it socially acceptable to devour and chitter about publicly. Hollywood has shoved it further onto our radars with their cinematic adaptations. While FIFTY SHADES OF GREY made the tragic mistake of being far too serious for its own good, director James Foley’s sequel FIFTY SHADES DARKER brought things around, showing a cheekier side to the sex play and horrendously unhealthy relationship dramatics. But with Foley’s follow up, FIFTY SHADES FREED, the film franchise’s uniqueness really comes (pun intended) into its own. This third chapter closes the book on all the hijinks we’ve endured for the past 6 years, finally giving the audience the release (pun intended) we’ve all been craving.
The title FIFTY SHADES FREED supposedly refers to Anastasia Steele’s (Dakota Johnson) new identity as a sexually liberated, uninhibited woman. But really, the majority of this story is spent on billionaire businessman Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) controlling, possessive ways and his journey towards domestication. The lovebirds are now newlyweds. She’s upgraded his “Red Room of Pain” shackles for another form of bondage as symbolized by their wedding rings. Anastasia is – rather alarmingly – still surprised by his wealth, insatiable sexual appetite and never-ending jealousy and insecurity. He treats her primarily as a possession and secondarily as human with wants and needs, over which he throws crybaby tantrums. He’s the perfect picture of fragile masculinity, keeping her under surveillance, infantilizing her, raging when the subject of kids is brought up, and humiliating her in front of her bosses and colleagues. Anastasia doesn’t get off (pun intended) blameless either as she, too, has learned to be dominant, possessive and jealous in all the wrong ways. If it’s not enough that the duo have to deal with their changing roles in the relationship, her former boss at Seattle Independent Publishing, Jack Hyde (Dan Stevens knock-off Eric Johnson), is hell-bent on revenge after Christian had him fired. A series of bomb scares, car chases and death threats ensue – along with a load of married sex.
All the hallmarks of your beloved bad movie franchise are here: laughable dialogue, the actors’ visibly pained delivery of said dialogue (the anguish that underlines a few of Dornan’s hate-filled lines is genuinely palpable), and lots and lots of camp. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions – one that oscillates wildly between howling with laughter and seething with anger. This final film really challenges its viewers to keep their composure, but Foley and company beg their audience to let it go. There’s no way anyone can sit stone-faced through the catty shade co-worker Liz (Amy Price-Francis) tosses at Anastasia, or Christian singing “Maybe I’m Amazed” at the piano, or when he tells his wife he’s been looking for her right after opening the refrigerator. Editors David S. Clark, Richard Francis-Bruce and Debra Neil-Fisher earn their paychecks with the sequence that shows Anastasia’s daydream about a butt plug intercut with repeated, aggressive close-ups of her wedding ring. Even the villain gets a “so bad it’s good” moment to shine! Hyde’s eyes get progressively redder and more irritated, like it’s allergy season in Seattle. Perhaps, though, it’s a hostage photo that’ll earn the biggest chuckle. They wisely play the camp to the hilt to distract audiences from a rudimentary, uninteresting plot and boring, vanilla relationships.
Niall Leonard’s screenplay, coupled with the problematic source material, trick the audience into thinking they’ve seen a strong shift in the couple’s power dynamic – yet it can never escape being an abusive relationship dressed up as fantasy. Much like DARKER, it digs its heels into some sort of feminist machinations. This time it’s demonstrated through Ana sassing Christian and trying to figure out her feminism in the workplace (where her toughest business decision is changing a font size), in the home (where she isn’t sure how to dictate duties to the staff), and in the marriage (where she’s forced to weigh motherhood or wifedom). The fact that she’s got to constantly cajole him into being a semi-decent human being is maddening. There’s nothing empowering about seeing a woman mollycoddle an entitled male ego.
After all we’ve been through with these characters, their pearl-clutch-inducing proclivities, his low slung jeans, and her rolling eyeballs, this conservative’s wet dream ends on somewhat of a bittersweet note, albeit one that feels absolutely freeing. Granted, we might’ve been beaten into submission by this point.
FIFTY SHADES FREED opens on February 9.