Fifty Shades of Grey was always going to be better as a film for the simple reason that the story is told in pictures rather than with words. Specifically, E.L. James’ words, which purport that ‘Holy cow!’ is an appropriately sensual response to seeing the naked body of the man you love, and compare the female orgasm to the spin-cycle on a washing machine. Liberated from the dire inner monologue of James’ Bella Swan-inspired heroine, the story is automatically more palatable.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past three years, that story concerns the romance between virginal English student Ana Steele, and BDSM-loving entrepreneur Christian Grey. There isn’t a plot as such, just a lot of “don’t come near me/I can’t leave you alone” mind games, some fretting over the particulars of a sadomasochistic sexual contract, and a couple of erotic sessions in Christian’s ‘playroom’, complete with whips, paddles and red velvet decor.
Rumours that U.S. multiplexes would be putting plastic covers on cinema seats in anticipation of the playroom scenes wildly overplay their actual erotic value. Universal Studios insisted that the film have an ‘R’ rating, which means the camera never lingers upon any particular sex act – sadomasochistic or otherwise – for more than a couple of seconds. The result is a montage sequence played out to a heavy remix of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, the overall effect of which is more reminiscent of Team America than Last Tango in Paris. So surprisingly tame is the whole endeavour that director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adult-film credentials prove all but redundant.
Taylor-Johnson makes smart choices elsewhere however, first and foremost in the casting of her two leads. Jamie Dornan (last seen tying women up for far more sinister purposes in Irish crime drama The Fall) does his level best with creepy Christian, who gets the film’s stinkiest lines of dialogue, while Dakota Johnson is a revelation as Ana. Johnson is beautiful in a real-life way, rather than a Hollywood sense, and her Anastasia is much stronger and more relatable than her book counterpart. She holds the story together even as the tongue-in-cheek humour and romantic flutterings of the superior first half fizzle out into a troubling portrayal of something far less healthy.
Fifty Shades of Grey is not the erotic masterpiece fans may have been hoping for, but it isn’t the aberration it’s detractors were expecting either. It is an admirable exercise in the art of improvement.
Image: Universal Pictures