This throw away line from Anastasia Steele’s (Dakota Johnson) mother, played by Jennifer Ehle (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE), about her daughter’s painful seeming relationship with reluctant romantic Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) says so much about love it almost hurts. What was expected to be a silly, borderline campy adaptation of the E. L. James’s smash erotic fiction, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY actually turned out to be an absorbing exploration of two strong people trying to humble themselves enough to find love. The film does exactly what lovers of romantic films hold their breath for: leave you breathless and hopeful for these two characters to find their way to each other despite their personal hang-ups.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is not a perfect film, I would never begin to suggest that, as the idea of perfection and the actual application of it are hardly ever synonymous. It does, though, make for a highly entertaining experience and once again proves that movies made for women by women can actually be more than just frivolous fare.
Sam Taylor-Johnson’s (NOWHERE BOY) second film starts with a slow build, presenting our two future lovers in their separate environments. Unlike the source material, we spend a fair amount of time with both troubled billionaire Christian and the object of his affection, Ana. A lot has been made of Johnson’s performance, which was far better than I ever expected. She balanced the vulnerability of Ana and the comedy infused by Kelly Marcel’s (SAVING MR. BANKS) clever script with such grace that it was nearly impossible not to love her. I remember wanting to smack Ana over the head while reading the book –we have a phrase for that, in fact: “too stupid to live” – but the cinematic presentation of Ana was so nuanced and wonderful that I rooted for her every minute.
Often a virgin heroine is presented as naive and doe-eyed, but behind Johnson’s bangs lurked a strong woman who would stand up for herself no matter what – even if that meant letting this attractive, sensual man disappear from her life. Which of course the controlling broken billionaire would never let happen. And we would not want him too, anyway, since then there would be no film for us to enjoy.
Christian and Ana could not be more different, from their emotional maturity (his minimal, despite his outward appearance of togetherness and hers plentiful despite her sexual inexperience) to their clothing choices. Dornan’s Christian is always seen in a sterile palette of grey in contrast to Johnson’s colorful Ana. Christian is all about control and as the film progresses Ana falls deeply into his fractured world. She has agency and opportunity to make her own choices as she flirts with the danger she feels both attracted to and repulsed by. The pair tests each others’ limits for love and compassion and most of all: spanking.
Yes, let us not forget about the spanking. The erotic scenes are not too pornographic nor are they too tame, but settle into a comfortable middle place. If this type of sex is a new experience for you, these scenes might seem titillating when not troubling. I spent most of them more interested in how Taylor-Johnson captured the chemistry between the two actors rather than how erotic the sex felt. The love scenes are sexy, but more impressively they are raw. In one particular scene Ana is finally brought to the Red Room of Pain for her introduction to bondage, and she takes to it well. Finally, we see these mismatched lovers meeting in the middle of their own sexual desires.
Relationships are hard and movies about relationships can be even harder. I came into FIFTY SHADES OF GREY expecting light, corny dialogue (of which there is plenty), but I left a touch crushed by the power of this iconic relationship’s start. Of course there will be two more movies, so the ending is less than satisfying for those seeking a quick happy ending, but if you are willing to put in the time I actually think this film does a superior job at cutting all the bad parts of the novel and leaving only the emotional core behind.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY opens tonight.