(Review) Fifty Shades of Grey

Without being guilty about it, I will say that from the title of this movie review, you already know I saw Fifty Shades of Grey. Before you get judgmental, I work at a cinema, and I get to see movies for free. So, I decided that since there wasn’t anything that I was interested in besides Still Alice, I thought I would go with a friend to see what all the hype was about with the bondage movie. What I experienced was a strange and sometimes bewildering film that couldn’t make its mind up about what it was trying to be.

I’ll skip all the plot summaries. You can find those elsewhere. The black and white of the story is that Ana, a college virgin, interviews Christian Grey, a 27 year old billionaire, for her college paper, and from that point on becomes the object of his obsession. He tries to lure her into being his submissive, and from there we have a back and forth of the two characters butting heads about everything in their rocky relationship.

From the start, the movie was in a bad place. Coming from a book that sold millions upon millions of copies, this should have been a slam dunk. So, I don’t really know who to blame. Most of my blame went to the editor of the film. The comedic timing was off from the moment Ana stepped off the elevator and walked towards her destiny on the penthouse floor of Grey Holdings. What was supposed to be a funny moment where Ana trips over her own shoes is totally thrown away by not giving the audience the proper visual information to lead up to the laugh. Instead, we see a shot of Ana walking to the door, with her back to us, and then in the next shot, she’s falling to the floor. Not once did we see a shot of her feet. Honestly, I saw better comedic timing in The Princess Diaries.

It’s easy to blame the actors for the tone of the film – I mean, these people have to be the oldest college students I’ve ever seen – but in reality, they aren’t given much to work with. The book was written in first person, and a lot of the emotional payoff was being able to experience the events through Ana’s POV. This element is missing in the film, and I found myself wishing there were some form of narration from Ana. It would have filled in a lot of the gaps where we are left with just bizarre expressions from the character as she hears her future lover saying lines like, “I won’t touch you until I have your full written consent,” and the like. It was like witnessing a two hour long job interview where neither of the characters seemed to particularly want to be there.

Of course, there were exceptions. For brief moments, the film seemed to work, and actually had me engaged. One scene, which was actually the highlight of the film for me, was the meeting that Anastasia sets up with Christian to negotiate his contract, binding her as his submissive. The lead up to the meeting was full of laughs, including the two characters apart, communicating via instant messenger. This was incredibly true to real life, as far as I’m concerned. It allowed me to see the characters reacting in private to the flirty messages. Christian suggests they do dinner to discuss the contract. Ana tantalizingly demands a business meeting and shows up in a one-piece dress. The rest of the scene showcases the characters and their banter back and forth over what Ana is not comfortable with. It is all done with a wink and a chuckle, and I felt like the characters would lunge across the table at each other at any moment.

But, where was this chemistry throughout the rest of the film? You’d think that coming from a book hyped so much about its sex scenes that the film would have us on the edge of our seats, waiting for Ana and Christian to commit to some sort of mutual ground.

Sadly, this doesn’t happen in a satisfying way. As with the opening scenes of the film, the entire charade falls incredibly flat. This is again because we are not given visual information that is crucial to the storytelling. The film is shot like a student piece. Every angle is by the book. There is no creativity. A conversation is filmed in medium shots, going back and forth. Not once does the scene cut to a close up of an expression or a smirk or anything. I would have at least expected to see some close ups of hands wringing or something to give me a hint of what the characters were feeling or thinking. Alas, all this crucial information is left in the characters’ heads and we feel like we’re watching a bunch of robots reciting their lines.

And what about the sex? That’s what the audience was interested in to begin with, right?

Well, Shades doesn’t bring anything new to the table. There is more steam in an episode of Smallville. At first, the sex was tense and moderately shot. Nothing you haven’t seen before. But, as the film goes on, every time the characters stepped into the red room, I groaned. Another three minutes of breasts and legs. It became so tedious, mostly because there is no lead-up. There is absolutely no tension, so the sex isn’t even a payoff to anything. It’s just there.

Other things that bothered me a lot about the film was the amount of time that the main characters spend together. Am I really supposed to believe that these people live the majority of their lives in seclusion? As a normal person, I am lucky to get three hours alone per day. Christian seems to be able to go 24 hours or more without seeing another soul. A lot of news was spent on the supporting cast. Of course, they are all excellent. Yet they are wasted. In Twilight, the secondary cast such as parents and other vampires were there to buoy Edward, Bella, and Jacob. In Shades, the secondary cast is there as an afterthought. What a criminal misuse of Marcia Gay Harden. The moment she walked on the screen I was hooked. She had such presence as Mrs. Grey. But, she was there for about thirty seconds before she walked back out the door.

What? What was the point of having her to begin with?

The point was to usher the plot along. If she wasn’t there, then Ana wouldn’t be roped into a family dinner. Said family dinner comes about fifteen minutes later (when it should have been the very next scene) and lasts about a minute. Now, coming from a world where dinner scenes can last five minutes or more on shows like Downton Abbey or films like Titanic, this scene was incredibly cast aside. Where I should have been getting hints and insider information about Christian’s home life, I got a few shots of him grabbing Ana’s leg. The entire scene was there just so that Mrs. Grey could revel in the fact that her son was not gay (as if she hadn’t noticed the sixteen other women he’d roped in to be his submissive over the years).

Then, of course, there was the non-ending. Anyone who has browsed the Kindle book selection in romance knows that whenever there is a trilogy, it means that you absolutely must read all three books to get any sort of beginning, middle, and end to the story. The first book will inevitably end as a cliffhanger designed to get you to impulse purchase the next book, and this film follows through on that technique to a tee. But, it doesn’t satisfy a film audience who has to wait a year or more for the next bit of the story.

So, these are a lot of words to say that it is no wonder that audiences felt cheated with this film – and fans of the books should worry. Author E. L. James is fighting to write the adaptation of the second book, and she insists on more sex. But, that’s just the problem. As a romance writer, she has relied on the sex so much to take the place of a plot, emotion, and character motivation that the story will fall even more flat the next time around. The actors need a reason to do what their characters are doing on screen – not just the excuse that the script is telling them to do so. We need to see what makes Christian so distant. We need to see Ana coming to terms with what she finds out. Will any of this translate to the screen?

I am doubtful.

This wasn’t the controversial film I thought it would be. Instead it was a half-baked attempt at filming an unfilmable book. Perhaps the filmmakers who sign up for part two should seek counsel with their inner filmmaking goddesses before they proceed any further.

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