Reviews

'Fifty Shades of Grey' Is a Stale Confection for Valentine's Day

Piers Marchant

Despite its risqué reputation, this film, like the book it is adapted from, is a generic tale of male power that's been told many times before.


Fifty Shades of Grey

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora, Max Martini
Rated: R
Studio: Focus Features
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-02-13 (General release)
UK date: 2015-02-13 (General release)
Website
Trailer

For all its notoriety as a racy envelope pusher, E.L. James' novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, is anything but cutting edge. It's standard bawdy romance boilerplate, even down to the language. The novel tends to describe the male anatomy's "considerable length"; or, more hideously, as a "Christian Grey flavor popsicle." It reads like an old Penthouse Forum letter with the unpleasant slang removed, offering instead a more clinical examination of sexual process, for instance, "He shifts so he’s between my legs, pressed against my back, and his hand travels up my thigh to my behind. He caresses my cheek slowly, and then trails his fingers down between my legs."

Such staid prose extends to descriptions of the story's BDSM elements -- these push the book into an apparently shocking lasciviousness, which has in turn propelled its popularity. For many readers, it's something like the literary equivalent of a lemon Atomic Warhead, those hard candies sprayed with a layer of extremely tart flavor that your seven-year-old self must prove to your friends you can endure. For other readers, the book works ironically, with James' fantastically artless and clumsy prose perfectly matching the story's trashy virtues.

That story is essentially Pretty Woman: a rich, callous, vaguely damaged playboy takes in a young tabula rasa of a waif, teaches her the ways she can best sexually please him, and, after a few dips, tumbles, and just enough of the man's emotional bloodletting, the two fall in love, never to return to their previous incarnations. But even given this strict formula, and by the loathsome standard set by Hollywood precedent, Christian Grey is infuriating, a stalking, humorless control freak who disregards everything demure Anastasia says in order to follow his own unerring instinct about what it is she really wants, implementing his every whim as he sees fit.

In Fifty Shades of Grey the movie, Christian Grey (played by former underwear model Jamie Dornan) is a dreary cypher. A billionaire 27-year-old, the CEO of his massive empire, he was born to an abusive "crack whore" and suffered through a brutal infancy and early childhood before he was adopted into a fantastically wealthy family and a life of privilege and power.

The question he embodies, the one that eventually comes to the well-bitten lips of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), is why it is he's so hell bent on making everyone and everything in his life follow his strict rules. This is a man so rigid, he has his legal team draft a multi-page, legally binding sexual contract with Ana, so as to ensure the dominant and submissive roles will be played to the hilt and to his complete satisfaction. To her credit, perhaps, Ana refuses to sign this document, even after a protracted negotiation results in Christian striking out such lurid possibilities as "anal fisting" and "genital clamps".

To entice Ana toward signing, Mr. Grey spends most of his time on screen stalking her, breaking in to her Seattle apartment, and later, "surprising" her by interrupting her already far-too-brief visit home to Savannah by showing up at the country club where she is enjoying a drink with her mother (Jennifer Ehle). He goes on to snatch drinks out of Ana's hand just before she's about to sip. Exasperatingly condescending, he insists that she takes pleasure in nothing else, save him, while offering her absolutely nothing gratifying in return, reminding her over and over again that he doesn't "do romance" or, in fact, anything whatever to reassure her that he's not an emotionless cad.

We've seen Christian Grey before, of course, and that is part of his appeal as well as his offensiveness. Like Richard Gere's Edward Lewis, Jack Nicholson's Melvin Udall (in As Good As It Gets), and, at least by aspiration, every man in Game of Thrones, the forceful, cruel, emotionally distant male can seemingly always find a willing, comely victim to dominate.

But still, even as Christian Grey introduces Ana to the trappings of wealth and BDSM, she instructs him as well, bringing him into the world of emotional expression. While this familiar story is set up to seem as if each player receives something essential from the other, his share involves a certain materiality (money, manners, leather straps), while hers is all about the so-called feminine realm. She helps her man to share feelings he first ridicules, then grudgingly accepts. Still, his evolution is limited: we can't help but think that Christian is doing what it takes to keep Ana obediently by his side.

Like his predecessors, Christian is seductive and twisted in mundane ways even as he might imagine himself special. The trick in the tale is that Ana and viewers who identify with her imagine he's special too, before she sees something else. Where her new insight will take her is left open here, as Fifty Shades of Grey ends with the promise that it's the first film in a trilogy: Christian has two more installments to take full possession of her soul.

4

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

9
Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane
Music

Mobley Laments the Evil of "James Crow" in the US

Austin's Mobley makes upbeat-sounding, soulful pop-rock songs with a political conscience, as on his latest single, "James Crow".

Music

Jordan Tice's "Bad Little Idea" Is a Satirical Spin on Dire Romance (premiere)

Hawktail's Jordan Tice impresses with his solo work on "Bad Little Idea", a folk rambler that blends bluesy undertones with satiric wit.

Music

Composer Ilan Eshkeri Discusses His Soundtrack for the 'Ghost of Tsushima' Game

Having composed for blockbuster films and ballet, Ilan Eshkeri discusses how powerful emotional narratives and the opportunity for creative freedom drew him to triple-A video game Ghost of Tsushima.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

Love and Cinema: The Ruinous Lives in Żuławski's L'important c'est d'aimer

Żuławski's world of hapless also-rans in L'important C'est D'aimer is surveyed with a clear and compassionate eye. He has never done anything in his anarchic world by the halves.

Books

On Bruce Springsteen's Music in Film and TV

Bruce Springsteen's music in film and television captured author Caroline Madden's imagination. She discuses her book, Springsteen as Soundtrack, and other things Springsteen in this interview.

Music

Alt-pop's merci, mercy Warns We May "Fall Apart"

Australian alt-pop singer-songwriter, merci, mercy shares a video for her catchy, sophisticated anthem, "Fall Apart".

Film

Tears in Rain: 'Blade Runner' and Philip K. Dick's Legacy in Film

Blade Runner, and the work of Philip K. Dick, continues to find its way into our cinemas and minds. How did the visions of a paranoid loner become the most relevant science fiction of our time?

Music

London Indie-Poppers the Motive Impress on "You" (premiere)

Southwest London's the Motive concoct catchy, indie-pop earworms with breezy melodies, jangly guitars, and hooky riffs, as on their latest single "You".

Books

Vigdis Hjorth's 'Long Live the Post Horn!' Breathes Life into Bureaucratic Anxiety

Vigdis Hjorth's Long Live the Post Horn! is a study in existential torpor that, happily, does not induce the same condition in the reader.

Music

Konqistador and HanHan Team for Darkwave Hip-Hop on "Visaya"

Detroit-based electronic/industrial outfit, Konqistador team with Toronto hip-hopper HanHan for "Visaya", a song that blends darkwave and rap into an incendiary combination.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.