Note: This review is broken up into two parts. The first is my take on the film as it stands without the book. I pretend as if I haven’t read it, and my only knowledge is the general public hype about the series being about a risqué BDSM relationship, or as it’s commonly called: mommy porn. The second gets to the heart of the matter: the film’s relationship with the source material, and all of the problematic and triggering subjects it contains, including the “BDSM” relationship. I am literally sitting here doing air-quotes with my fingers.
Part 1 – General Observations
I was hoping this film would be hilarious like the Twilight films, but it ended up being one of the most boring films I’d had to sit through in recent memory. Wex and I ended up talking through most of it, even through the reactions of a theater filled with middle aged women (which was packed by the way). Things were happening on screen, but there was no plot.
There was one funny scene in the entire movie, and it was when he takes her back to her hotel after she passes out at the bar. He’s at the end of her bed while she’s eating breakfast, and takes off his shirt in a way that says, “Hey look at my glorious man-chest”. Then he leans forward and takes a bite out of her toast, complete with a teeth chomping sound. I have no idea where that came from, but Wex and I were both cracking up.
As far as quality, there was an obvious show of effort in the direction (more on that later) and cinematography. The scenes were shot well, and I had no qualms with the production value. The sex scenes in particular were carefully crafted to maintain an R rating, though the sex itself was incredibly vanilla. Both Christian and Anastasia got roughly equal exposure. For a supposedly kinky sex film, it was tame (save for one scene, which I’ll get to, I promise), and ultimately failed its premise.
I noticed the use of lighting to set the mood in a few scenes, though it was only effective sometimes. I really didn’t get the red-orange lighting in the contract negotiation scene. Was it supposed to signify tension? A heated debate? A sexy moment? With the way the scene went, I couldn’t tell. I also noticed the abundant dreary grey tone (hilarious movie…), especially evident in the outdoor scenes in Portland and Seattle.
Jamie Dornan was very bland as Christian Grey, and at some points I felt like he was an excited teenager trapped in an adult’s body. I literally have nothing else to say about him right now, other than I don’t think he was that attractive for a male lead in a romance.
Dakota Johnson carried the film as Anastasia. You could tell she acted her heart out in this role, even if at times the dialogue was stilted. Ana was, for the most part, not bad to watch. She had a personality, was fairly well-fleshed out on screen, and even took charge of her relationship with Christian, sometimes.
The romance aspect was awkward. The two of them had no chemistry, though the director tried to show them doing normal relationship stuff amidst trying to work out the BDSM contract. For the most part, I saw two people who wanted different things from each other and were trying to make concessions in order to be with the other. Or at least that’s what the movie was trying to get me to see…
Part 2 – Trigger Warning
I will say the director did the best she could with the absolutely terrible source material and with EL James constantly fighting all of her creative choices, but there are still a lot of problems with this film. The director really tried to make Ana’s character have more control over her situation, and removed or downplayed a lot of the problematic content, but sometimes it would seep through. There would be a look from Christian, or I’d hear a line from the book, and I’d be pulled right out of the illusion the film was trying so hard to craft.
In an attempt to pull the veil over my eyes, the film made Ana a more active character. I hated Anastasia in the book (and the Inner Goddess and Subconscious characters, who were absent from the film). I hated her with a passion; she was passive, vapid, made horrible choices, and literally only loved Christian because he was a hot-perfect-sparkling-God-on-Earth-Edward-clone and wanted to bang him regardless of the fact she was utterly terrified of him physically hurting her. In the film, she barely came off as being scared, but that was likely due to the fact we weren’t getting her thoughts.
The director toned Christian’s abusive creep factor way down, or as far as EL would let it go. She actually had him do normal relationship things like take Ana on a date, or go for a walk in the woods, or sit naked in the bathtub with her and hold her. He still wanted to have kinky sex with her, but instead of pushing her into things she didn’t want to do like he does in the book, constantly, especially regarding what’s on the contract, there are actual instances where he concedes to her desires. I was surprised.
There’s a scene that was changed from movie to book. Instead of Ana and Christian discussing the contract terms in a private area of a restaurant, where she has way too much to drink, it’s in a board room at Christian’s office building. Ana goes through the contract and tells him what she will and will not do. Christian even crosses things off the list as she says them. He doesn’t protest (at least not verbally, but you can see it on his face) and doesn’t try to coerce her like in the book, giving the illusion Ana’s in control.
I noticed a lot was cut. The scene after the negotiation where he gets angry at her, violently spanks her, and rapes her (she’s been drinking all night – there’s no way she can consent to sex under the influence) in her car is removed for the movie. The boathouse rape scene is entirely removed from the movie (as it is the most definitive case of rape in the novel, no matter how you argue it. Ana literally tells him, “Please don’t hit me” and that she doesn’t want what’s going to happen to her. If those aren’t the words of an abuse victim, I don’t know what is. Sorry Fifty Shades fans, but that’s not hot and that’s not consent). The Jose sexual assault scene is almost not there. He only tries to kiss her before White Knight Christian shows up instead of him groping her. Jose is never seen after that.
Now, just because there was a lot of pruning to this story doesn’t mean Christian’s creepiness isn’t still evident, but it doesn’t get bad until the last act, or close to it. They removed him directly tracking her through her phone, but he does show up at her apartment, angry, unannounced, and with wine. He still undresses her when she passes out from drinking too much before they’ve entered into a relationship. He also still follows her to Georgia when she goes to visit her mother, which is really disturbing to see and even fazed Wex.
The scene I took the most issue with (and the one most have already pointed out) was the last scene when she asks to see the full force of what Christian wants to do to women. Ana still doesn’t know that he dominates women who look like his “crack-whore” birth mother. I’m paraphrasing something else I saw on Tumblr, but if Christian wasn’t rich and beautiful, this series would be the plot of a Criminal Minds episode. They actually even make jokes about Christian being a serial killer more than once in this movie. The audience laughed at them while I just sat there staring at the screen. Anyway, before she asks him to hurt her, she flat out tells him she’s terrified of being punished, and after she is struck six times with a belt, she will never let him do that to her again and leaves.
This film pulls the same shit as the book: portraying BDSM relationships as, at best, something that isn’t normal, and at worst, something brutal and to be feared. Ana, who had never had sex before she met Christian, was appalled by a simple Google search regarding BDSM. She slammed the cover of her laptop and got up in disgust both in the book and the movie. It’s very clear to me she doesn’t want to be involved in this kind of relationship, yet because Christian is the sexiest thing alive, decides to go through with something she’s not ready to do.
What’s in the book and the film isn’t even a close to correct portrayal of a Dom/sub relationship, making Christian Grey an abuser. The whole point of the interaction is that both parties get something out of it, are mutually willing (both parties have the power), and happy. Ana does not want to be punished. Researching BDSM appalls Ana. Ana is afraid of what Christian may do to her. Ana does not actually sign the contract. Speaking of that contract, there’s way too much in there for a newbie to agree to. Ana’s never done any of this before, so even if she wanted to, it’s not normal to expect that much out of her. Ana is not a sub. Ana is a victim of abuse.
The other problems with BDSM in this movie and book are that so many rules are violated. Safety is the number one concern. You do not take your own personal anger out on your sub like Christian does to Ana. You always check in on your sub throughout BDSM play. If your sub shows any sign of discomfort, or no longer consents to what’s going on, then you stop. Consent is constant, not just given at the start of a Dom/sub relationship. Christian also never explains safewords to Ana. He mentions what the actual words are, but not when to use them or what they’re for. Again, Ana is a newbie. She’s not going to know this stuff. Christian also buys cable ties to use, which is a terrible idea as those are not meant for BDSM. You use those to bind criminals because they’re fast and hard to get out of. Riot police use those.
There’s also the matter of aftercare. Aftercare, which is caring for your partner after BDSM play, is a very important part of the relationship. It can include a number of things like: talking about what both partners experienced, first aid if needed, cuddles with your partner that may include warm blankets, verbal reassurance, rest, having something to eat or drink, etc. There is none of this in Fifty Shades. Christian usually leaves her, doesn’t check to see if she’s alright, and oftentimes, Ana is left crying. That’s not aftercare, and their relationship is not BDSM.
The film had the opportunity to fix a lot of these issues, and unfortunately what they did was apply a bunch of bandaids to an amputated leg and hope people wouldn’t notice. I know EL James had direct involvement in this movie, and fought tooth-and-nail with the director about creative changes, so I’m not sure how much of this was her doing. Regardless, I’m not impressed.
The mostly middle-aged lady audience laughed at a lot of things they shouldn’t be laughing at. They laughed at the hardware store joke Ana made about Christian being all set to be a serial killer. They laughed at the joke about him putting a bag over her head to presumably kidnap her. Those jokes may have been funny in another movie, but not in this one. Not in this one. And the fact that those people found it funny shows a disconnect between what is wrong and what society has deemed acceptable.
This film should have done better, but I didn’t expect it to.