Behind the Veil: Sam Taylor- Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey

The notorious bonk buster’s troublesome take on BDSM has got audiences debating the boundary between kink and domestic violence, but the real bondage is all on the director.

fifty-shades-christian-greyWhen it was announced that artist–turned–director Sam Taylor–Johnson had been hired to direct the much- publicised Fifty Shades of Grey film adaptation, audiences couldn’t be blamed for a sense of raised expectations. A screen version of E.L. James’ ludicrously popular “mummy porn” trilogy (which began life as online Twilight fan- fiction) seemed destined to happen as soon as the sales figures for the books began to make headlines, but when Taylor–Johnson took the helm a screen version equally as appalling as the books didn’t seem so inevitable. Not only did the Turner Prize nominated artist have one very commendable feature -length directorial credit (Nowhere Boy) under her belt, she had also earned her credentials on the adult -film scene with the tastefully explicit short piece Death Valley. If anyone could conjure a decent movie out of E.L. James’ ghastly erotic prose, surely it was this woman?

Were it not for an ironic extension of the film’s controversial themes into the movie’s production, the answer may well have been yes.

As most will know by now, Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson on screen) a virginal college student who falls under the spell of Byronic business magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). He’s equally taken with her, but there’s a catch: Christian is exclusively interested in BDSM relationships, meaning that young Ana is forced to contemplate floggers and genital clamps before she’s even so much as popped her cherry. Kinky adventures in the Red Room of Pain ensue, while Ana must weigh up whether or not it is worth surrendering her autonomy and sexual freedom to become her beloved Christian’s dedicated ‘submissive.’

fifty_shades_of_grey_trailer__stillHowever, whilst the R- rated film (an 18 certificate here in the UK) has disappointed fans and film critics alike with its preference for sensual facial close-ups over candid depictions of bondage and sadomasochism, Taylor-Johnson was forced to play a far more hard-core submissive to E.L. James’ dominant behind the camera. During the film’s much-reported production period, it transpired that James had maintained significant creative control over the project. This meant that despite the laudable efforts of Taylor–Johnson, screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) and the two cannily cast leads, Fifty Shades remains a one–woman creative mess. Taylor–Johnson tried to perform some damage- control by having playwright and past collaborator Patrick Marber craft something more subtle out of the novel’s toe-curling dialogue, but Ms James stamped her foot and threatened to deliver a sharp spanking to the director in the form of a Twitter scandal if Taylor-Johnson didn’t preserve the exchanges that the book’s fans apparently so adore. Thus, immortal lines such as “I’m fifty shades of fucked -up” remain, and whatever salvage work Marber might have done is relegated to the land of ‘what- if?’

Book Ana is not submissive, she’s a victim of abuse

fifty-shades-greyThe film is so blighted by the fall-out of this conflict that it almost overshadows that other major debate surrounding the movie: whether the story’s version of a BDSM relationship constitutes abuse. In the novel, it unequivocally does. Book Ana tolerates rather than enjoys many of Christian’s predilections, and the BDSM community have been quick to point out the hypocrisy. Real- life fans of this kind of activity have repeatedly stressed in the wake of the Fifty Shades phenomenon that BDSM practises are founded on communication, enthusiastic consent, and communication. Moreover, it’s the submissive who’s really in control, setting the limits and having ‘safe words’ at their disposal which they can use to scale down the intensity of an action, or make it stop completely. In the novel, Ana is not turned on by Christian’s Dominant/Submissive contract. She is also frequently passive in the negotiation of its boundaries, and when she uses her safe word she is ignored. Book Ana is not a submissive, – she’s a victim of abuse.

But what about on screen? Taylor–Johnson and actress Dakota Johnson (no relation, instead daughter of Melanie Griffith and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren from The Birds) have insisted all along that their portrayal of Ana is empowering to women. Their success is the film’s most pleasant surprise. Much of this comes down to Dakota Johnson’s performance. Liberated from the “oh my”s and “holy crap”s used to convey Ana’s shock and arousal in the books, Johnson is free to give us an endearing heroine, flustered and naive, yes, but also quick–witted, adaptive, and not afraid to stand her ground. The best scene of the film arrives when Ana insists upon a formal ‘business meeting’ at Christian’s office to discuss the terms of their proposed contract. Lit in moody reds by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, it’s one of the film’s few genuinely sexy sequences, because this is where Ana and the audience both realise that, despite appearances, she’s the one who holds all the power.

If only E.L. James’ submissive, Taylor–Johnson, had been allowed to do the same.

Rachel Groocock

Images: Universal Pictures

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