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As the tens of millions of readers of Fifty Shades of Grey know, Christian Grey doesn’t do hearts and flowers. The long-fingered antihero of E L James’ 2011 novel is a sexual dominant, practiced and resolute, determined to make Anastasia Steele his submissive without giving her the dreaded “more” — i.e., the dinner-date trappings of conventional romance. Both on the page and in the glossy, compellingly acted screen adaptation, one of the more perverse aspects of their zeitgeist-harnessing story is the breathless way it melds the erotic kink known as BDSM with female wish-fulfillment fantasy of a decidedly retro slant. Hearts and flowers are barely concealed beneath the pornographic surface, and as with most mainstream love stories, an infatuated but commitment-averse male is in need of rehabilitation.
Arriving on Valentine’s weekend with record-setting ticket presales, the first in a planned trilogy of movies will stoke the ardor of James’ fans, entice curious newbies, and in every way live up to the “phenomenon” hype. Although the book’s soft-X explicitness has been toned down to a hard R, this is the first studio film in many years to gaze directly at the Medusa of sex — and unlike such male-leer predecessors as 9½ Weeks, it does so from a woman’s perspective. Aiming to please, the filmmakers submit without hesitation to the bold yet hokey source material, with leads Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson breathing a crucial third dimension into cutout characters.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who depicted the psychosexual domestic drama of John Lennon’s adolescence in Nowhere Boy, has a feel for the dark corners of relationships. Telling the story of a virginal young woman in thrall to a man with “singular” needs — the book began as Twilight fan fiction — she depicts fringe pursuits within a familiar, reassuring romance-novel dynamic. And she makes brisk cinema of the opening sequence, placing English-lit major Anastasia in the gleaming high-rise Seattle office of supercapitalist Grey and setting up the contrast between her fumbling innocence and his affected formality. She’s a last-minute substitute for her roommate, Kate (Eloise Mumford), who’s home nursing a cold while Anastasia interviews the young entrepreneur for their school paper.
In that glass box, Dornan seems lacking as the stormy-eyed Grey, displaying little of the animal magnetism of the serial killer he plays on BBC series The Fall (indirectly referenced in an exchange of in-joke dialogue). But his performance quickly grows fascinating in its containment, revealing a disturbingly more animated side of Grey when he next encounters Ana. With a suddenness that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror thriller, he shows up in the aisles of the hardware store where she works and leaves her deeply flustered as she helps him with a shopping list of items — rope and cable ties among them — whose true purpose she’ll soon understand.
But not all that soon. It’s a slow build to the smutty bits, and one that’s disappointingly devoid of tension. Even so, the movie is, by definition, a stronger proposition than the book because it strips away the oodles of cringe-inducing descriptions and internal monologue that tip the text heavily toward self-parody. Things grow more compelling once Grey whips out his nondisclosure agreement — along with a nice Pouilly-Fumé, naturally — and shows Ana his “playroom,” expertly outfitted with state-of-the-art S&M gear.
Except for his prowess at pleasuring women, everything is slightly off in Grey, from the not-quite-swagger of entitlement to the not-quite-revealed memories of a wounded childhood. In his first major big-screen performance, Dornan creates a remarkable range within Grey’s tightly wound intensity. When he takes Ana up in a magnificent glider, both characters let go, and the two leads wordlessly evince very different forms of unhinged joy, equally affecting.
The screenplay by Kelly Marcel, whose only previous feature credit is the utterly wholesome Saving Mr. Banks, is ultra-faithful to James’ writing, and retains some of its most risible lines. Many of these fall to Dornan, who finds the icily deranged conviction in such morsels as “I’m not going to touch you until I have your written consent” and “Welcome to my world,” Grey’s pronouncement after receiving said consent and giving Ana her first spanking.
As the attraction plays out, Ana is both doe-eyed and skeptical, challenging Grey on his philosophy as well as specific clauses of the contract that would officially make her his submissive. They negotiate that document in a nighttime “business meeting,” with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey finding a stylized sensuality in the widescreen frame. Throughout the film, his use of close-ups is fully attuned to the central performances.
First seen looking in a mirror, Anastasia is a figure defined by self-discovery. She’s embarking on postcollege life at the same time that she experiences a physical awakening that she never would have imagined. Although the character’s literary leanings are as flatly drawn as Grey’s vague philanthropic undertakings and high-powered tech-biz talk, Johnson is captivating. Her facial features recall both her parents (Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), but she’s very much her own actor.
With a loose-limbed naturalness, she conveys naiveté, intellectual curiosity and romantic yearning, and shows the unassuming Ana’s newfound thrill at being seen, however complicated the man holding her in his admiring gaze. She’s open and vulnerable but no fool. Best of all, Johnson and her director embrace Ana’s paradox: She snickers at Christian’s predilections, but they also turn her on.
The movie, too, wants to have it both ways: Informative and nonjudgmental about bondage and discipline, it distances itself from such pursuits with shard-sharp slivers of backstory, indicating that Christian’s desires are expressions of trauma-induced pathology. He’s supremely dreamy damaged goods, ripe for the saving. And so the moonlit postcoital sonatas he plays at his piano — interludes of self-conscious melancholy that are among the most laugh-out-loud schmaltzy in the book, transplanted whole to the screen.
From meet-cute to deflowering to the sequel-setup ending, the relationship between Ana and Christian is one of carefully navigated mutual consent. Their first use of his playroom is packaged in a montage-y way that feels nonthreatening and more than a little generic, complete with intrusive pop-track accompaniment. A few dom-sub contract details and a couple of online photos notwithstanding, the movie maintains an artful restraint even as it talks dirty; the sex scenes suggest more than those of the standard Hollywood drama without quite going there. The penultimate scene, where Christian punishes Anastasia with a belt — and thrills to it, as Dornan communicates with exquisite subtlety — is by far the film’s most extreme.
Surrounding the steamy/clinical pas de deux are barely sketched types: Jennifer Ehle plays Anastasia’s much-married mother, Victor Rasuk is her smitten photographer friend, and Luke Grimes is Christian’s demonstrative brother. Among these half-conceived characters, Mumford, as Ana’s all-American valedictorian best friend, and Marcia Gay Harden, as Christian’s adoptive mother, make the sharpest impressions.
In the workaday “purity” of Ana’s life and the otherworldly wealth of Christian’s, production designer David Wasco and costume designer Mark Bridges hew to the details of James’ story in ways that fans will spark to, while Taylor-Johnson and McGarvey cast the Pacific Northwest in an unaccustomed light, naughty and tormented.
When it’s not insistently bland and overused, Danny Elfman’s score hits the right notes of heart-thumping dread/excitement, accentuating Anastasia’s point of view. The inclusion of on-the-nose songs such as “Beast of Burden” is more distracting than helpful, but the opening-credits use of “I Put a Spell on You” sets the right hot-and-bothered tone. Who’s casting a spell on whom is the question.
Production companies: Focus Features, Michael De Luca Prods., Trigger Street Prods.
Cast: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Screenwriter: Kelly Marcel
Based on the novel by E L James
Producers: Michael De Luca, E L James, Dana Brunetti
Executive producers: Marcus Viscidi, Jeb Brody
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Production designer: David Wasco
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editors: Debra Neil-Fisher, Anne V. Coates, Lisa Gunning
Composer: Danny Elfman
Casting: Francine Maisler
Rated R, 125 minutes
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