1. I've never read the book Fifty Shades of Grey, but I'm fairly certain this film is the best possible adaptation of the material. From the looks of it, the 2011 erotica sensation seems not only to lack any semblance of a story, but even the backbone of one—as if author E.L. James never really thought to include it. There is no arc, no momentum, no drive, no nothing to the setup here: Two people meet, they talk, they have sex, one whips the other one, these activities repeat in seemingly random order, and that's all that happens. Supporting characters show up not because they serve any purpose, but because it seemed strange to only have two characters in this thing. There isn't a single scene here that pushes the plot forward, because there is no plot. The story is so lackadaisical and meandering that characters either forget what happened in the previous scene or decide to ignore it all together. There is a scene in which our hero wows our heroine by flying her through the skies in his private aircraft ... and then, 45 minutes later, he just goes ahead and does it again, and she's wowed again, and no one seems to note that this just happened. You regularly feel like someone hit you in the head with something 20 minutes ago, and you're just now remembering it.
2. And yet ... the movie isn't the total embarrassment that it should be? Fifty Shades is slickly and elegantly produced, crisply edited, and woven together with a twinkle in its eye, like it knows how ridiculous it is and wants to make sure you know it knows. It's consistently just on the right side of camp; not quite winking or nudging you in the ribs, it nonetheless doesn't pretend to be anything other than the trash it is. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson—who previously handled 2009's interesting and slightly off-kilter Nowhere Boy, about a teenaged John Lennon—makes sure to place the film in a world of pure fantasy while still anchoring it in our cloudy, slightly bland real world. (She makes Seattle look like a place where it's be perfectly natural to sniff down a stiff latte on a rainy day before someone pounds you on the back with a stick for a few hours.) There really isn't enough meat here to cobble together a real movie, but you can't blame Taylor-Johnson for not trying. She somehow gives it all a movie-type sheen.
3. What might be most surprising about Fifty Shades of Grey is how funny the first 45 minutes are. Before we get to the spankings and the whips and the gags, it dances along at a fun, almost clever pace. Sure, the Anastasia character is absurdly constructed—she's a virgin! she works at a hardware store! she apparently can't walk through a door without tripping and falling!—but, as played by Dakota Johnson, she's a little smarter, with a little more self-respect, than I suspect the character had on the page. (Again, if this book has actual pages; it honestly wouldn't surprise me if every copy was just random spackle splotches on a scarf.) Johnson is a quirky choice for the role, as she's mostly known for comedy (she was hilarious on the short-lived FOX show Ben & Kate), and she's alternately daffy and odd and winning in a way that I suspect is entirely her own creation. In one scene, she and her troubled-billionaire love interest, Christian, negotiate the terms of their impending BDSM contract—the middle third of the movie is all about the importance of this contract, but then, typically, we don't really hear about it again—and it has the cadence and energy of screwball farce. Johnson is an extremely likable and relatable actress, and it'll be fun someday to see her play a recognizable human being with actual thoughts and emotions.
4. Her performance is particularly impressive because she has to act opposite an inanimate block of wood. I'm told Jamie Dornan isn't bad in the BBC Gillian Anderson series The Fall, so perhaps it's not fair to blame him for being unable to breathe much life into the deflated balloon of his own character, but regardless, this is the sort of situation where you feel like congratulating the guy simply for not stumbling over furniture or breaking any of the props on set. It's possible no one could play Christian Grey—an insane amalgam of billionaire, sadist, spoiled brat, wounded child, bro dawg, philanthropist, stalker, crybaby and Real Doll—but Dornan certainly can't. Watching his scenes with Johnson, you can almost see her urging him to just wake up, already. The dynamic between the two often resembled Anne Hathaway and James Franco at the Oscars, one person desperately trying to juice the other one into snapping to—"Come on, man, people are watching this." I wonder if he should've used his natural Irish accent. At least he would have said todger a few times.
5. We've gotten this far, so we should get to the sex scenes, which apparently are far less prevalent in the movie than in the book. That's for the best. The two leads don't have much sexual chemistry with each other, but I don't think that's because, as has been much discussed, they personally dislike each other. No, the problem is that the movie, which is never exactly speeding along in the first place, grinds to a halt every time the clothes start coming off. The key to a sex scene is what comes before the sex scene: You have to want it just as much as the characters do. These two spend so much of the movie yammering on about sex that by the time they get down to it, you're already ready for them to just get it over with already. And I dunno what that book is like, but the level of kinkiness on display is basically several steps below your average Cinemax movie. (The BDSM lifestyle is oddly played off like a bad thing here, too, the result of a tortured, sick mind, which is really bizarre angle for this film to take, if you think about it.) The sex scenes feel cut off from the rest of the movie, like a musical where all the songs are atonal and screeched.
Of course, it's not like the talking scenes are riveting drama, either. Still, Fifty Shades of Grey, thanks to the artistry and diligence of Taylor-Johnson and the inherent charms of Dakota Johnson, is surprisingly not mirthless. There are times, however fleeting, in which it feels like you are watching an actual movie. Honestly, that feels like a victory.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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