Anyone who knows me will be aware that there aren’t many occasions when I don’t know what to say, but as the credits rolled on Fifty Shades Of Grey, I really had no idea what to make of it.
It should come as no surprise by now to hear that Fifty Shades Of Grey is about young, naïve virgin Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who is sent to interview the handsome billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) after her journalist roommate gets ill. Christian is drawn to Anastasia and begins to court her in his own singular style – where he is very adamant that he doesn’t do the girlfriend thing, or romance, or indeed typical human emotions.
Anastasia is certainly intrigued by a man who has all the wealth in the world, but understandably has pause when she discovers what Christian really wants. He is a dominant, who wishes Anastasia to sign a contract that will allow him to use her as his S&M sexual plaything, and essentially control nearly every aspect of her life for his own pleasure. While Ana likes Christian, she isn’t sure she wants to submit in this way.
Like I said, at the end of Fifty Shades I really wasn’t sure what I’d just seen. For about the first 30 minutes I seriously wondered whether the film was secretly a comedy. I genuinely giggled a few times as it got so close to parody that it felt as if everyone from Jamie Dornan to director Sam Taylor Wood was doing the whole thing with a wink and nod, while keeping things level enough that Fifty Shades author EL James wouldn’t notice.
However, then it lost that edge of absurdity it became rather disturbing. In the special features, EL James says she tried to write the novels while being non-judgemental and showing that the world is many shades of grey, but when you’re romanticising a sociopath you need to be a bit more careful and multifaceted. Now I know a lot of you will say Christian isn’t a sociopath and that he’s just complex and interesting, but that’s not really how he’s presented in the movie.
Indeed, it’s much like the people who pine for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights under the presumption that because he’s damaged and occasionally sweet, that makes up for the fact he is a violent, nasty brute. In Fifty Shades, for much of the time it’s presented that the only thing Christian has to offer Ana is money and looking gorgeous, and that she has to essentially give up her freedom and be miserable most of the time to get that. There’s a disturbing edge within the film that despite it being written and directed by women, 50 years of feminism have been wrong and that underneath all the talk of equality women really would quite like to be possessions, and that they would be more than happy with that as long as they’re given enough shiny baubles to play with.
Even at the end when Fifty Shades attempts to bring a little more depth, there’s still an edge that women would quite like to be ‘things’, as long as their partner wished to possess them but not hurt them. Even then it seems to get totally confused between inflicting pain and inflicting emotional hurt, despite talking a lot about that beforehand in the context of the pain and pleasure of S&M.
It’s also odd that for a film sold so much as being about female sexuality, it presents a vision of sex where everything is about the man, and the woman’s pleasure is purely in relation to how she makes the man feel. There’s little here about the submissive in a S&M relationship doing it because they get their own pleasure and satisfaction.
At times it’s almost as if the film is asking how much of her humanity Anastasia is willing to bargain away, in return for money and a hot guy. Unfortunately, it’s not done in a smart way, where it could essentially be asking whether this relationship is at the extreme end of the bargain many have to make, between freedom and security, and between love and happiness. Instead it’s done in a far dumber, more materialistic way, where many will be wondering why Ana would be so besotted with a man who doesn’t exactly hide what a manipulative, controlling dick he is, and why she would spend so much time negotiating a contract to do something she blatantly doesn’t want to do, just because he thinks he’s hot.
After all, it’s not like she’s trapped in an abusive relationship like many people in real life, she’s genuinely making the choice to value helicopter rides and new cars over being with a decent person and being genuinely happy. Sure Ana is young and naïve, but the film doesn’t really explore that in any logical way. Perhaps I’m too idealistic thinking that most women would prefer not to be abused and controlled either physically or emotionally, even if there were a fully negotiated contract in place.
Damn those feminists for making me think women were independent creatures. But then I suppose even if most women are independent and smart, there will be some – just as there are some men – who are frigging stupid. However, I’d prefer not to watch a movie about them, especially one that doesn’t even seem to realise it’s heroine is a shallow, materialistic moron.
Admittedly Ana does question Christian’s contract and ask for ‘normal’ relationship things, but even these are presented in the context of her not understanding why these things don’t please him, rather than why they would please her. There’s also the S&M contract negotiations, which are supposed to show this is an equal thing, where both parties have fully agreed to everything, but quite frankly it’s still about him, as it’s still all about what she will do for him, most of which it doesn’t appear she genuinely wants to, with her only getting crumbs in return (which even then are presented as if he’s doing her a favour). But hey, perhaps she’s is a great negotiator after all, as she got anal fisting off the table!
I know I am massively overthinking this, but I couldn’t help feeling that a lot of Fifty Shades is rather disturbing. Then I realised that the real problem is Christian himself, and that the film can swing from comedy to drama to disturbing, unconscious anti-feminism because he doesn’t make any sense as a human being/sociopath. The movie does try to get round this by suggesting he may genuinely be psycho and that S&M is the way he stops himself going full Patrick Bateman, but when you add him together there is very little that makes any sense.
Even if you go by the logic that he is an unapologetic asshole but due to his feelings for Ana he is trying to be a better man, it doesn’t add up, which is partly due to the fact that while much of the movie is essentially a contract negotiation, neither Ana nor Christian really get to grips with any of the issues of either a relationship or an S&M partnership. Everything is given such a hugely romantic gloss that it’s only when you realise what it’s not dealing with and what it’s not saying, quite how ugly the whole thing is at times. There’s the makings here of what could have been a fascinating dissection of consent, changing gender roles, sexism, sex itself and power, but all that gets subsumed under a lot of romance with little logic.
And let’s get to the sex, as let’s not kid ourselves, the book became a sensation more due to the graphic humping than the story, but the film is so vanilla it’s ridiculous. The sex scenes are pretty tame even when it enters Christian’s infamous S&M red room (in fact one of the reasons I was giggling early on was due to the movie’s almost Austin Powers-style way of nearly showing genitals while never quite flashing the goods). And when it gets to the end and Christian shows Ana what he’d really like to do – something it feels like the film has been teasing for hours – my reaction was simply, ‘Is that it?’.
Now I am far from an S&M aficionado, but quite frankly if Ana hadn’t been expecting that from the moment Christian first said he was a dominant and then showed her a room full of ropes, whips and handcuffs, she is a moron – and no, she is not naïve, she is stupid. So basically you end up with a movie about a romance between an asshole who makes no sense and a materialistic moron. And that is what passes for a phenomenon these days.
Plus, it adds to the edge of misogyny that lingers round the movie that while Anastasia spends a decent chunk of the movie naked, the movie is far coyer with Jamie Dornan (he had a ‘no cock’ clause in his contract, in fact). I’m sure the makers rationalised this both as to how it fitted with Christian’s character and how commercially in the US, the ratings system makes it far harder to get away with showing penis than vagina, but the fact is it reinforces the idea that female sexuality is there for the eyes of men.
But hey, maybe I’m jaded because I’ve seen Nymphomaniac, and after watching Jamie Bell’s genuinely full-on dominant in that, Christian Grey seems utterly pathetic, and both his and Ana’s motivations are weak beyond belief.
All that said, there are a lot of people out there for whom this rather tame, confused and philosophically disturbing movie would seem the height of naughtiness. So as long as they don’t actually think about it too much, who am I to disabuse them of that mild thrill?
Oh, and while this home entertainment release sells itself as the ‘Unseen Version’, the changes are minor, with the most notable difference being a slightly longer ending which, if you ask me, is actually worse than the one they settled on for the theatrical cut.
Overall Verdict: I know it’s just a silly little romance with an S&M edge to add to the sense of naughtiness, but it’s also a mess – a pretty mess to be sure – which is reductive, and has worryingly old-fashioned ideas about men and women which are never properly looked at. The first 30 minutes are pretty camply funny though.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac