It’s not a popular opinion to have, but I’ll say it: I “liked” ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. Not as in a genuine enjoyment or giving it a place in any cinematic “best of” list, but as a guilty pleasure with more emphasis on the “pleasure.” Two Valentine’s ago, intrigued enough by the marketing and the whole controversial phenomenon, I decided to give Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of E.L. James’ infamous “contribution to literature” a fair shot and found more to admire than to write off (and this is coming from someone who gave up on the book after almost seventy pages because of the infuriating blank slate, aside from literary stereotypes, series protagonist Anastasia Steele comes off as). Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel deserve actual credit for taking the ludicrous brunt of James’ writing out, keeping the story to a bare minimum and transforming what is probably the most unneeded and unnecessary book series in modern history and transformed it into a very handsomely designed and decently acted film that never felt bogged down by genuine seriousness.
But it’s been two years since ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and the second film – ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ – has arrived to leave its own mark on the romance genre, the kinky erotica sub-genre and many a couple’s Valentine’s Day tonight. And it is a time where the “woman’s touch” was sorely needed as “Darker”, now under the direction of James Foley (“Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Perfect Strangers”) and screenwriter Niall Leonard (whose connection to E.L. James, I’m sure, was of no consequence whatsoever in getting the job) slowly turned into everything I was worried ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ would turn into, something the original was never in real danger of “hitting”.
It’s less than a month after Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and her perverse Mr. Rochester (Jamie Dornan) end their peculiar affair and a reunion comes almost instantaneously, with Christian “cornering” her at an art gallery (those who love to accuse Mr. Grey of being a stalker and the poster child for gas lighting and emotional abuse will certainly get their fill from just their first scene together) that, unbeknownst to her, is practically a love letter to her (because these stories always indicate anyone male will harbor some form of attraction for the female hero) ￼and, also almost immediately, Ana and Christian decide to resume their relationship, but still on her terms, a notion that’s positively alien to Christian. But, as the old saying goes, he’s willing to give vanilla the old college try because that’s the kind of effect she has on him. And as the tropes of any romantic story proves, there’s an outside force that threatens to put the rekindled relationship exactly where it was before. This outside force comes in three distinct flavors: Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Ana’s boss who makes his desires for his secretary evident early on, as does his insistence that he not be ignored, Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of Christian’s former submissives (the emotionally fractured variety of submissive) who spends the entire movie perfecting her “stalker ex” routine past Lifetime standards and, of course, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger), the infamous “Mrs. Robinson” who introduced Christian to his “singular tastes” and views anything – or especially anyone – that upends her former lover’s lust and emotional instability as a threat to be extinguished quickly.
To start off, let’s discuss Niall Leonard, screenwriter and, as previously mentioned, original novelist E.L. James’ husband. His screenplay comes off as more earnest in its depiction of his wife’s idea of forbidden relationships and the struggle of a plain Jane taming the soul of her emotionally wounded lover, unlike Kelly Marcel’s adaptation of the first book, which walked a line where being earnest was slight and being self-aware was godlike. And because of the earnest feeling, it’s easier to recognize the absolute ludicrousness of Ms. James’ base ideas. The sincerity is funny. Side-splitting, even, in ways legitimate comedies should take notes on. And James Foley as director tried his damndest, but, as backed up by his earlier film ‘Perfect Stranger’, the tawdry thriller is not a genre that suits his directorial flourishes.
The ‘Fifty Shades’ series will ultimately prove to be a testament to Dakota Johnson’s abilities as a comedienne and actress. Anastasia Steele is a character who shouldn’t work under any circumstance, but Johnson has managed in both films to ferret out several personality traits and nuances that make her transition from virginal student to wanton sex goddess (not the infamous “inner goddess” that was rightfully removed from the previous film) to emotionally fulfilled and controlled adult feel “real” and “relatable.” Jamie Dornan, on the other hand, still seems to hold a slippery grasp of Mr. Grey. The work in this film seemed more authentic than what he had to work with last time (which is crucial when remembering this is the story ￼where we really go into what makes him tick) and he never fails to thrill his intended audience when down to just his birthday suit, but there’s still an uncertainty in his chemistry with Ms. Johnson that sells the legitimacy of Ana and Christian’s romance short. But they still have one more film ahead.
Other returning cast members are little more than service and window dressing that serve more as a reminder of the work they’re capable of, including the little moments with Marcia Gay Harden as Grey’s adopted mother. What is said isn’t meant to be a slight against Ms. Harden, but her appearance in these films is the kind of performance that can be done in sleepwalking. The three biggest additions to the cast don’t fare much better, either, which is actually “impressive” when you consider who’s involved. I haven’t read the original novel, but one would presume if you cast an actress of Kim Basinger’s talent and magnitude as such a critical figure in Christian Grey’s past (let’s not forget, pre-‘Batman”/“L.A. Confidential’, the most iconic role of her career was the art gallery owner who discovers the joy and sorrow of an S&M relationship in Adrian Lyne’s “91⁄2 Weeks”), at least have her be interesting and add to the stakes of the relationship. As Elena Lincoln is done in this film, all Ms. Basinger really gets to do is just glower at the object of her disdain and pout at the object of misguided affection in a genuinely unflattering black dress and pearls.
Eric Johnson seems to always be saddled with the “always the bridesmaid” romantic interest role, as Jack Hyde comes off as a more repulsive version of the Whitney Fordham character he originated in the inaugural season of “Smallville”, albeit with a coarser mouth, as one heated moment between employer and employee escalates into unintentional comedy gold. And as the final scenes of ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ guaranteed, Mr. Johnson will be back to “up the ante,” for better or worse. Bella Heathcote feels like the addition that gets to have the most fun and interesting character (I mean, she does pull a gun on our poor heroine at an inopportune moment), but that come too late into the story to be genuinely effective, not to mention what comes before is an almost trite portrayal of psycho-obsessive love straight out of the “Fatal Attraction” guidebook. The actors, both new and old, are ultimately dictated by classic archetypes and little more.
The people behind the style of the original – Seamus McGarvey on camera, David Wasco on production design and Mark Bridges on ￼costumes – didn’t return back to the ‘Fifty Shades’ world, either (Mr. McGarvey went on to lens Tom Ford’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’ with his previous director’s husband, Mr. Wasco is currently a frontrunner for the Production Design Oscar for Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’ and Mr. Bridges is working with Paul Thomas Anderson again on his currently untitled fashion film), and their replacements – John Schwartzman on camera, Nelson Coates on production design and Shay Cunliffe on costume design – amp up the beautiful sterility of Grey’s Seattle penthouse -and sex dungeon- and even bring some color and intrigue to a masquerade ball where personalities are first destined to collide, but the luxurious feeling that came naturally before feels hollow and forced this time round. Even Danny Elfman, the one major person returning for the sequels, and the film’s soundtrack – now consisting of Taylor Swift, John Legend, Nick Jonas and Nicki Minaj, Halsey and Zayn Malik of One Direction, to name a few – lack the spark that made the original film’s musical contributions so effective. The film’s signature ballad, Swift and Malik’s “I Don’t Want to Live Forever”, is a lovely song on it’s own, but don’t expect it to have the life (or awards possibilities) of The Weeknd’s “Earned It” or Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do”.
And, of course, one cannot review a ‘Fifty Shades’ movie without getting into the nitty-gritty of its portrayal of the characters’ unique (for mainstream cinema; for anyone who’s seen recent films like Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymph()maniac’, Alain Guiraudie’s ‘Stranger by the Lake’ or Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’, the depiction of kink sexuality here will seem restrained, even neutered) sexual behavior. Here is a time I will say Foley manages to outshine Taylor-Johnson. Thanks to what Johnson and Dornan (the chemistry works here, so yay?) and Schwartzman’s camera work bring, the introduction of ben-wa balls (you’ll have to research those yourself) and the return to the infamous “red room” provide little moments of intrigue and flashes of genuine eroticism to get your loved one in a mood or
In the end, what can ultimately be said about ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ is that, like its predecessor, it’s a technically attractive film, but unlike it’s predecessor, puts more of an emphasis on the “guilty” part of “guilty pleasure” and is best saved for its inevitable journey to a discount theater near you around St. Patrick’s Day, if even that courtesy is willingly entertained. We have one more Valentine with the idiosyncratic relationship of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey coming up and a year to see if Foley and his team can allow “Fifty Shades Freed” to end on a good note or let what started out as a commendable franchise end on a whimper.