The eagerly awaited/dreaded film adaptation of the best-selling BDSM romance Fifty Shades of Grey is nowhere near as laughable as you might have feared (or perversely hoped for): It’s elegantly made, and Dakota Johnson is so good at navigating the heroine’s emotional zigs and zags that you want to buy into the whole cobwebbed premise. The movie’s biggest surprise is its powerful affirmation of family values. It’s Jane Eyre with ropes. That this vanilla bean has been denounced by religious decency brigades while female churchgoers pleasure themselves over advance tickets is further proof of America’s insane cultural bifurcation — or trifurcation, if you count the worriers who predict that women’s shelters will have to add more beds to accommodate battered copycats. Are there really people who still think that watching a man tie up a woman and both of them get off is the gateway to hell?
Not being a masochist, I couldn’t bring myself until recently to read the first book in E.L. James’s trilogy, which began (and should have ended) as fan fiction. A few pages was all it took to grasp that the shy, virginal narrator-heroine, Anastasia Steele, needed to be liberated from her mousy introversion, and the sleek, chill billionaire Christian Grey from his anger toward women — one hopes by the love of an independent lass willing to meet his demand for submission partway (but only partway). Anastasia and Christian are literally made to rescue each other.
The setup is not, dramatically speaking, virgin territory. A successful male control freak who’s compelled by an emotionally pure woman to open himself up is the basis for thousands of romances and is far less disturbing in its implications than, say, Pretty Woman, that launching pad for American Sweetheart Julia Roberts in which the prince purchases his princess on the open market. Here, the characters’ names say it all: A vulnerable princess with a core of steel(e) meets a morally gray prince who is first and foremost Christian.
Not-untalented, not-unsophisticated people have swallowed hard and labored to make these clichés seem fresh. It couldn’t have been easy. Johnson’s Anastasia begins as a bookish ingenue with slumping shoulders and bangs that hang limply over her cast-down eyes. Having been enlisted by her flu-ridden journalist roommate to come to her rescue by interviewing the forbidding Mr. Grey, Anastasia is ushered into a high-in-the-skyscraper office by a tall, crisp blonde in an expensive suit. Seeing Grey, she gets tingly all over. He is not merely Master of the Universe but an Adonis to boot.
Theoretically, at least. Jamie Dornan, a last-minute replacement after Charlie Hunnam left so fast that the revolving door must have flapped for days, cuts a less commanding figure than you’d hope, so the first look between Anastasia and Grey is a nonevent. With his fluffed-up hair and pert, pretty little face, Dornan’s Grey looks more like a natural bottom than a top. He’s a bantamweight. Although I did grow to appreciate his modest, unshowy acting, it’s clear he’s not sending much heat her way and that she’s having to work herself up in a vacuum — at a cost to her psyche, judging from her glassy, PTSD demeanor in television interviews.
Whatever she went through, Johnson is superb. The daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, she resembles neither one. Her gift (which her mother had before all the shtick and plastic surgery) is for achieving emotional transparency while looking nothing like a trained actress. But the craft is there. Johnson doesn’t so much speak her lines as float them, removing the sharp notes so that Anastasia can seem both intelligent and strangely unassertive — the sort of smart, unformed woman who’d be irresistible to a man with a compulsion to dominate.
The most original and entertaining parts of Fifty Shades of Grey are the pre-coital negotiations. Christian hands Anastasia a long contract, the details of which have been hammered out by the kind of lawyers that you and I will never be able to afford; and Anastasia strikes out clauses and then announces after all the niggling that she needs to go home and think a bit more. Her non-surrender is the key to movie’s dramatic tension but also, alas, its libido-killing pace. My God, this thing goes on. By the time the two get busy in Christian’s “playroom,” the oomph has gone out of the whole erotic setup, the focus having shifted to the happiness of Grey’s mom (Marcia Gay Harden) at finally being allowed to meet one of Christian’s girlfriends as well as Christian’s decision to do what he never does with a submissive: take her on a “real date.”
How you respond to those “playroom” scenes will depend on many factors, from your gender to your sexual predilections to the depth of your experience. Anyone who has dabbled even casually in S&M will find Fifty Shades of Grey cruelly mild, though a few might get off on knowing that in the theater next door the kiddies are watching SpongeBob. Given the preponderance of female nudity and absence of pickle shots, we hetero males probably get the better deal — which is too bad, given that the director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, is a woman and ought to have a more female-centric perspective. It’s not that she employs the usual prurient male gaze. It’s that her own gaze is as nervous as her heroine’s. She seems shackled (so to speak) by the movie’s takeaway: that even mindful, ultraregulated BDSM isn’t for normal people but emotional basket-cases — damned souls — who need to hide behind prescribed roles and rituals.
This is not, in other words, a film for those who believe that an interest in dominance and submission is — as long as no one gets seriously hurt — healthy. It’s for people who are titillated by BDSM but feel ashamed of themselves (or, our culture being singularly screwed-up, are titillated by feeling ashamed of themselves). Cocky, confident Christian is actually in hell. When, for the sake of healing him, Anastasia pleads with him to show her what he really wants to do, his predictable demonstration sends her reeling, retching, weeping into his private elevator. What did she expect?
Perhaps James finds a middle ground in parts two and three of the Fifty Shades of Grey “trilogy,” which will be made into movies assuming Johnson can be induced to put up with Dornan two more times. (Sadists might find the actress’s evident pain more exciting than the character’s.) Meanwhile, newscasters and talk-show hosts will squirm through discussions of BDSM with the knowledge that hordes of churchgoers are massing at the doors, everyone reliably missing the point: that in a country where almost every movie features a hero racking up serial-killer-worthy body counts, it’s a little slap and tickle that draws the most blood.