More meta-event than movie, Fifty Shades Darker arrives with the forced fanfare of a willy cake from your Aunt Sheila. On page and screen, the series has struggled to provide material to match its breathless cultural ubiquity and this deficit continues with film number two. Is anyone actually enjoying this anymore? Local saucepot Jamie Dornan does the interview rounds like a good boy, but his screaming eyes betray the pain of bondage. Pipe up Jamie, what’s the safe word?
Picking up a little time after Christian Grey (Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, still the best thing here) severed their kink contract at the end of the first film, we find Ana settling back into a normal life, working as an assistant in an independent book press. One of friends, Jose, is still inexplicably hovering for her affections: when Ana attends his photography exhibition, she finds herself surrounded by her face blown up to portrait size. ‘If I had asked, you would have said no’, shrugs her good buddy, just one in a series of male characters with a liberal grasp of consent as a concept. But, like the Ghost of Bad Boyfriends Past, Christian just won’t go away, showing up at the gallery and buying all her prints. ‘I just can’t stand the thought of other men gawking at you’, he says. We’re ten minutes in at this point. Ana’s in for a rough ride.
No more rules! Those crazy kids can’t keep their hands off eachother, and decide to give things another shot, ditching the Red Room acrobatics for an old-fashioned, vanilla coupling. A domesticated Christian is suddenly forced to negotiate everyday mundane relationship issues. She wants a fulfilling career where she can rise on her own merits, but he bought the company she works for! She wants financial independence, but he drops large cash sums in her bank account, because sure he knows her details anyway! Kitchen sink stuff. We’ve all been there. And if you thought Dornan as sexy-rapey CEO was less than believable, wait to you see him as bantering boyfriend with commitment issues. He adores and respects Ana so much, and wants to build a life with her, but dude also loves beating women. So tortured!
No more secrets! Ana begs Christian to open up, at one point outlining the cigarette burns on his chest with a big lipstick ‘M’, so he walks around like Gmail-icon-man. He gets emotional about his crackhead mother and rough childhood, revealing pretty much nothing we don’t know already. As a Forbes fantasy archetype based on teen-vamp fan fiction, played by an actor who can’t emote much beyond a vague not wanting to be in the room, Grey’s character is basically a Russian doll of nothingness.
Darker does gets extra points for trying for something ressembling intrigue plotting. A wacko girl with bandages, one of Christian’s former subs, is stalking Ana. And her new boss Jack (Eric Johnson) turns out to be, surprise surprise, a handsome sexual predator with serious boundary issues, jumping from zero to one hundred when he finds out she has a boyfriend. Either Ana’s giving off some funky pheromones, or E. L. James only knows how to write one thing. Meanwhile, Kim Bassinger shows up Christian’s “Mrs. Robinson”, ambushing Ana with catty threats and getting drinks thrown in her face. Without the distracting B&Q sex games, the daytime soapiness shines through clearer. Christian’s chopper malfunctions and crashes into woodland, and while Ana and co are glued to the news reports he just walks through the front door with a flippant bon mot, miraculously unharmed and still down to bone.
And there’s a lot of boning. They bone in the shower, they bone in the bed, they bone in his old childhood room. Usually to the sensual strings of soft rock. There’s a lot of tit but no dick or vag. Dornan says ‘nipple-clamps’ and it’s weird. The dirty talk is kind of dull. The final impression, honestly, is that we all deserve better erotic entertainment than this. Time to make smut great again. Conor Smyth