Film / Theatre Reviews - Reviews

Reluctant Yet Obligatory Review of the Year: 50 Shades of Grey


It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving their cinema seat after Fifty Shades of Grey feeling truly satisfied. Certainly not people like me, who had followed the on-set bust ups and disastrous pre-release press tour with some amusement and turned up hoping to see a hilariously terrible turkey. In fact, the movie is entirely well-made – it’s just well-made to a fault. This a cold, sterile piece, over-produced to within an inch of its life and with no semblance of real human sentiment or emotional weight that should come in a film that entirely focuses on a complex romantic relationship between two people.

Of course, the group turning up looking for those qualities in the film are likely non-existent. Fifty Shades of Grey, you see, is based on an EL James’s inexplicably popular erotic novel famed for its depiction of dominance and submission, bondage and other BDSM sexual practises. But those hoping for even a mildly titillating experience will too feel let down. Like the rest of the movie, the sex scenes are a total bore – as uptight and rigid as titular character Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) himself. Apart, that is, from the first, more ‘conventional’ love-making sequence, which reminded me so much of the sex in Tommy Wiseau’s legendarily so-bad-it’s-good flick The Room, just with a better soundtrack.

Like industry titan Bruce Wayne, Grey’s a hotshot billionaire business type, but rather than donning a cape after office hours, he enjoys partaking in sexual practises he himself describes as “singular”. Taking a shine to the impressively named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) after she turns up at his office to conduct an interview for a college newspaper, Christian attempts to woo the awkward, virginal literary student with a series of ever-more expensive gifts in the hope that she’ll put pen to paper on a contract that allows him to engage in all his sexual desires, without the fuss of usual relationship inconveniences, like going to see movies or even sleeping in the same bed.

The movie’s problems start with Dornan himself, who is an utterly charmless leading man. Johnson does her best (skilfully walking the tightrope of not being sold on Grey’s proposition without being totally repulsed by it either), but the lack of any discernible chemistry between the two stars means the film never really sparks to life. These are two people who, it’s widely known, can’t stand the sight of each other. No-one in their right mind would want to see them fuck. And given that there’s no credible plot to speak of (the suggestions that Grey’s tastes are fuelled by experiences as a teenager are so undercooked it’s offensive), the intimate scenes between the duo – be it sexual or non-sexual – are all director Sam Taylor-Johnson is banking on to make the piece work.

Not that Taylor-Johnson should escape some blame for the film not igniting. She gives every scene an expensive, stainless steel glean that’s nice on the eye but defies the down-n-dirty subject matter. And for a movie that boasts the tagline “Lose control”, there’s never a feeling that the director does. On-screen sex has never felt so choreographed and sterile. Compare this film to the raw, coarse sex scenes in last year’s excellent Blue is the Warmest Colour or the wicked flashes of BDSM in Secretary and 50 Shades of Grey starts to closer resemble a training manual than the sensual potboiler it should have been.

There is another grouping who might be tempted to take in Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s been suggested that couples interested in engaging in BDSM have looked at the books as a sort of “How to Do” manual and some might check out the film to satisfy that primal curiosity. They’ll be disappointed. There’s really nothing here that would fall outside of even the most sheltered person’s imagination of what they might see in this flick – Christian tying Ana up and hitting her read-end with various items is about the size of it. Lumbering through the final half hour, I found hoping myself that one of the film’s sex scenes would actually repulse me. Repulsion is a feeling at least, and one that would have been preferable to jamming my pen into the side of my leg to stay awake, which I became increasingly tempted to do. To call this movie grey would do a disservice to the colour grey. This is more fifty shades of nothing. Dean Van Nguyen

Dean Van Nguyen is a music journalist and cultural critic based in Dublin. In addition to The Thin Air, his work has appeared in The Irish Times, Pitchfork, Wax Poetics, PopMatters, The Deli, Clash, and various others. Twitter: @deanvannguyen