Put down your handcuffs and leave the blindfolds in the drawer. You won’t need those props to get you through a viewing of Fifty Shades of Grey. Despite what you might fear, the movie is not torture. And even if it doesn’t inspire lust, you will breathe a warm sigh of relief, thinking: This could have been so much worse.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) have taken E.L. James’ ridiculous and painfully earnest bestseller about the relationship between clueless, virginal college grad Anastasia Steele and hot, dominating billionaire control freak Christian Grey and shaped it into something resembling actual entertainment. Taylor-Johnson and Marcel approach the story with the right mix of humor, melodrama and steamy sex, which is not as explicit as you expect but not as vanilla as you have been led to believe (the theater I saw it in got very quiet during a scene involving a tie and an ice cube). The filmmakers have sensibly operated on the time-honored The Bridges of Madison County Principle, which states that adapted right, with most of the cringe-worthy dialogue removed, a movie can transcend poorly written source material.
This is not to say Fifty Shades of Grey is transcendent. It’s really just dumb fun for a girls’ night out or maybe even a date night, sticking close to the book plotwise but moving the story along more rapidly and wisely swerving from the more ludicrous aspects of its characters.
The film follows Anastasia and Christian’s first meeting — she’s ineptly interviewing him for a college newspaper, he’s clearly intrigued — and their growing mutual attraction. He stops by the hardware store where she works, flirts and buys a number of suggestive items (not surprisingly, she does not realize what the rope is for — yet). He asks her out for coffee, then, appalled at her girlish enthusiasm for romance, storms off, telling her she should leave him alone.
She wants to date like normal people. He has another sort of relationship in mind and eventually reveals his Red Room of Pain to her, full of sex toys and frightening devices that clank out of the ceiling, telling her he wants to dominate her and asking her to sign a contract agreeing to a bizarre arrangement that will make her his submissive. Taylor-Johnson handles the negotiation scene particularly well: The contract in the book caused only hilarity for readers, and the director understands that even the guy wanting this would need to have a sense of humor to get through a discussion about it. I can promise you if someone ever presented me with paperwork negotiating the size and shape of butt plugs to be used at a later date, there would be a lot of laughter.
As Anastasia Steele, Dakota Johnson (Need for Speed, Beastly, The Social Network) is still surprisingly inexperienced for a 21-year-old in the 21st century, but she’s not the babbling ninny of the book who has never been kissed and squeals over acquiring an email address. She’s also able to show Anastasia’s incredulity at Christian’s request while at the same time making us understand why she’d even flirt with the possibility of signing on for this relationship, something the book never quite managed. For his part, Irish actor Jamie Dornan (The Fall) is shockingly adept at humanizing the impossible character of Christian Grey, who’s about oh so much more than nipple clamps and duct tape (you can tell because he plays melancholy classical tunes on his baby grand after sex). Much has been made of the actors’ lack of chemistry at their various press appearances, but on screen, their awkward, nervy interactions work just fine, and as their relationship progresses and grows more tense, their scenes grow more erotically charged until the final one, when everything falls apart.
The script inevitably makes a few missteps — Marcel really should have resisted the temptation to have Christian groan in anguish, “I’m 50 shades of f—ed up,” and allusions to Christian’s sad past are an unwelcome oversimplification — but at least there’s no chirpy Anastasia internalizing her inner goddess. The movie is ultimately incomplete; this is part one of a trilogy, and so the ending is far from satisfying. I hate to confess this, but I’ll probably go back to see part 2. Wouldn’t you?
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Marcia Gay Harden, Jennifer Ehle, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes.
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson.
Screenwriter: Kelly Marcel. Based on the novel by E.L. James.
A Universal Pictures release.. Running time: 125 minutes. Strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language. Playing at area theaters.