Has there ever been lower-hanging fruit than the cinematic adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey? The movie has tens of millions of devoted fans set to queue up, and tens of millions more wondering what all the fuss is about. And … how to put this delicately? It couldn’t possibly be as bad as the book.
And, indeed, director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation is not nearly as painful an experience as E. L. James’s novel. The author’s sub-leaden prose is gone, thank goodness, as is the internal monologue of her 21-going-on-14 protagonist, Anastasia Steele. There are no holy shits, holy cows, holy craps, holy fucks, or holy Moseses; no boys or oh mys or jeezes. There’s no mention of Ana’s “inner goddess,” let alone of it “doing the merengue.” For this, we can all be grateful. (Much of James’s dialogue, alas, is rendered intact.)
Taylor-Johnson also tones down, to some degree, the most troubling element of the novel. In it, the sexual encounters between college student Ana and her paramour, the 27-year-old billionaire tycoon and S&M enthusiast Christian Grey, are never nonconsensual in the most literal sense. But her consent is frequently coerced, as my colleague Emma Green has noted at length. Christian makes clear that he wants to explore new sexual territory. Ana makes clear that she does not. He makes clear that it’s his way or the highway. She relents out of fear of losing him. By cutting out Ana’s internal monologue, Taylor-Johnson removes many of the moments in which her unhappiness with Christian's sexual mistreatment is made most explicit.
That’s not the only transgressive (or would-be transgressive) material that’s been cut. The post-tampon sex scene is out. Ana’s performance of oral sex on Christian is gone as well, though memory of the phrase “my very own Christian Grey-flavored Popsicle” will, I fear, remain with us forever. The Ben Wa balls do not make an appearance, and the beneath-the-dinner-table groping of Ana that Christian undertakes at his parents’ house is presented as decidedly tame.
Which leaves? Well, awfully little. While Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation may not be as unpleasant or offensive as it could have been, it is stunningly, mind-glazingly dull. This is a two-hour film containing maybe half an hour’s worth of anything actually happening.
There's the excruciating meet-cute in which Ana (Dakota Johnson) stumbles her way through a school-paper interview with Christian (Jamie Dornan)—literally stumbles, his first sight being of her falling in through the doorway. On their next meeting, he saves her from the tragic fate of being run over by a bicycle. And for their third, she drunk-dials him from the bathroom of a club and he shows up just in time to have her vomit on his shoes and then pass out altogether. (Sexy!) He whisks her away to his apartment, shows her his Red Room of Pain, and asks her to sign a lengthy contract to become his sexual “submissive.”
While she dithers on this attractive offer, he meets her parents and she meets his, and none of these four presumptive adults suggest even the possibility that there might be something untoward about a hard-charging global CEO romancing a virginal college student. He takes her up in a helicopter. He takes her up in a glider. He gives her a room in his apartment. He plays Chopin on the piano in order to convey the sensitive soul beneath his cool, cruel veneer. He buys her a three-volume first edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. He buys her a laptop. He buys her a car. His chauffeur buys her some vomit-free clothing.
They have between 10 and 20 variations on the following conversation:
Ana: Why do you want to spank/whip/tie me up? Why can’t we be an ordinary couple?
Christian: Because this is what I am.
And of course they have sex. Theoretically, it is portrayed as “kinky” sex though, as noted, the kinkier bits of the book have mostly been cut, and none of them were all that kinky to begin with. So Christian ties Ana up with a necktie, with leather shackles, with rope. He tickles her with an ice cube. He tickles her with an ostrich feather. He spanks her gently with his hand. He swats her lightly with a crop, and later with a “flogger.” Though there is discussion of vibrators, dildos, and butt plugs, none of these items are ever in evidence, let alone in use. With the exception of the movie’s climax (no, not that, the narrative kind), pretty much nothing takes place that would scandalize your parents, and perhaps your parents’s parents. This is a movie that features less frontal nudity than Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
It has been widely rumored that the movie’s stars, Johnson and Dornan, actively dislike one another, and both have said in interviews that they were very uncomfortable when filming the movie’s sex scenes. I am sorry to say that neither is a persuasive enough performer to give any impression otherwise. The sex scenes begin gently and conclude pneumatically, but they offer vanishingly little in the way of heat or life or joy or daring. They are, if anything, less risqué than such long-ago, R-rated staples as 9 ½ Weeks or Fatal Attraction. In addition to erasing pain from the Ana-Christian equation, Taylor-Johnson has largely erased pleasure. The stultifying sameness of the sex sequences is such that I suspect one could shuffle them around without anyone noticing.
During the non-sexual scenes, Johnson occasionally displays real ease and finesse onscreen. Unfortunately, she's clearly been saddled with a directive to convey her character’s burgeoning sensuality through a near-constant oral fixation. It’s been said that the movie contains 20 minutes of sex; if this is the case, it must contain at least 40 minutes of Ana biting her lip or putting a pencil in her mouth.
Dornan, however, fares far worse. In part, this is a problem of page-to-screen translation: In the book, Christian is seen only through Ana’s eyes, as a kind of divine distillation of masculine charisma, a six-foot Y chromosome in a tailored suit. As such, the role would be a tough challenge for any actor. (It’s a shame, though, that American Psycho-era Christian Bale was not available to give it a try.) But Dornan, despite his exemplary turn in The Fall, is utterly lacking in the fierce intensity this role requires. It doesn’t help that the Irish actor can manage only an intermittent approximation of an American accent. His native brogue is evident in the very first scene, and try as he might to choke it down, it keeps coming back up, like an elocutionary hairball.
As for Taylor-Johnson, she is a respected artist and it’s hard to know what she (with screenwriter Kelly Marcel) might have made of the movie if left to her own devices. What we do know is that she was not so left: By all accounts, she dealt with near-constant interference from James. The author was given uncommon creative control when she sold the book rights, and she weighed in heavily—and according to most reports, unhelpfully—on every aspect of the production, from costume to set design to dialogue, with an explicit personal mandate of "protecting" the experience of the book's fans. The final line of the movie was a particular bone of contention between the two, with James, unfortunately, prevailing. It is perhaps a fitting irony that this should be the fate of the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey: contractually enslaved to an unrelenting control freak.