From the very first frame, “Fifty Shades Of Grey” positively drips with tension. Unfortunately, it’s not the sexual kind. There’s a palpable sense of nervousness and awkwardness in the opening scenes that has little to do with impossibly naïve and twee ingénue Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) or uncomfortably self-conscious billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan – who for the first half hour of the film looks like he wishes he could be somewhere – anywhere – else).
Adapted from the bestselling ‘novel’ by fan fiction writer E L James, Director Sam Taylor Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have worked a minor miracle in bringing the appallingly written source material to the screen in a reasonably coherent manner. It’s a real pity they were constantly having to battle against the proprietary oversight of E L James herself; otherwise they might have been able to shape the movie adaptation into a sharp satire of the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon. Despite their obvious discomfort (and reputed antipathy for each other), leads Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson actually do a decent job and even manage to find some moments of genuine sweetness in amongst all the Mills & Boon yearnings and predictably tame S&M shenanigans. There are even a few moments which actually sizzle, with the contract negotiation scene actually managing to be both sexy and funny.
The film struggles when it tries to stick too closely to E L James’ original text but when it frees itself to interpret and adapt it improves considerably. The expressions on the actors’ faces give new life to Harrison Ford’s famous quip ‘you can type this shit, but you can’t say it’, with ‘laters, baby’ being one of the prime clunky offenders. The centrepiece of the novel’s infamy, the ‘red room of pain’, is also toned down for cinematic consumption, revealed as more of an exquisitely curated selection of ‘Carry On…’ whips and chains innuendo brought to life. Beyond the two main characters, nobody else gets anything substantial to do: ancillary characters drift in and out inconsequentially (including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Gallic-flavoured cameo from Rita Ora) but I’m reliably informed they’ll be important in the next one.
Thematically, the film frequently brings up the concept of consent but spends its time vacillating between “Pretty Woman” style wish fulfilment and Stockholm Syndrome creepiness as both Christian and Anastasia seek to manipulate and outmanoeuvre each other so it fails to come to any kind of commentary or conclusion. It says a lot about the depth of the film that one of the more shocking incidents is when Anastasia’s flatmate simply takes her sandwich without asking; a bread-related transgression which foreshadows Christian Grey’s wanton stealing of her toast in a later scene.
The sex scenes are not as frequent or explicit as you might be expecting and, while there’s plenty of Dakota Johnson on show, those hoping for full frontal Jamie Dornan nudity are given the shaft (well, a glimpse of it at least). Rarely rising above soft core caresses and lingering slow panning shots there’s little in here that wasn’t done hotter and better in countless erotic thrillers through the Eighties and Nineties.
There are a few odd touches, such as why Anastasia, in 2015, has a flip phone and works in a store which still uses a pricing gun but overall, realising the material is the weak link, Taylor Johnson has done her best to make sure the film looks fantastic and spends as little time as possible with the mostly wooden supporting cast.
About half way through watching it, I realised that the worst sin “Fifty Shades Of Grey” commits is actually being quite unremarkable. It’s nowhere near bad enough to be a ‘so bad it’s good’ guilty pleasure and it’s neither erotic nor thrilling enough to be an effective erotic thriller. It’s…okay. Occasionally a bit boring, often a bit bland, but okay. Nothing more and certainly not worth working yourself into a frenzy (of outrage or arousal) over. Deride the source novels if you must (and you should) but the film – a glossy but reassuringly M&S take on S&M – isn’t worth the bother.