'Fifty Shades of Grey': Superficial, Manipulative - and a Revealing Look at Our Sociocultural Reality

The film adaptation of E.L. James' erotic fiction phenomenon is notable only for the way in which it portrays current attitudes toward sex.

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson at the U.K. premiere of 'Fifty Shades of Grey.'
Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson at the U.K. premiere of 'Fifty Shades of Grey.'Credit: Reuters
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

The dialogue is weak, even laughable. The direction is visually uninspired. And one of the two stars has absolutely zero charisma or cinematic presence – all dealing a deathblow to the story at the center of this film adaptation of British writer E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey,” directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson.

But when the film under review is based on such a huge cultural phenomenon as James’ book (I won’t elaborate here on the trilogy’s tremendous success; the excitement caused by initial news of a movie version and the announcements of who would star in it; and when the first trailers debuted online), to simply state that the movie version of “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a totally unimportant movie would be something of an evasion, even slightly misleading. The film may be just a film, but the phenomenon to which it relates is not something that can be dismissed with a few words of disdain.

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in 'Fifty Shades of Grey.'

For anyone who’s been absent from the planet since James’ book was first published in 2011, I will briefly note that the plot tells the story of literature student Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson), who falls into the net of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a tormented billionaire whose relations with women are of the sadomasochistic variety. Anastasia, known as Ana, is hesitant to give in to Christian’s sexual conditions – which even include signing a contract stating what she will consent to do. But Christian is so incredibly charming, and the lifestyle he offers so lavish, and Ana – who is still a virgin – may be attracted in some way to the sexual adventures he presents. So she agrees, perhaps also with the thought that she may also be able to free him from the perversions that shape his sexual and emotional world.

I write these lines about an hour after seeing the film, so these are very initial impressions (in coming days I may want to expand the discussion about it). However, even now I would say there are two main reasons why the film is of such interest: The book aroused interest because of its erotic content, which placed it close to being soft porn. There was much curiosity as to how the American cinema would transfer this romantic and pornographic erotica onto the screen.

Traditional and conservative

Now we have the result – and it’s a combination of supposed daring and actual conservatism. Brit director Taylor-Johnson’s film is not sexy, for although it wants to deal with the dark, controlling and aggressive sides of sex, it does not deal with sex itself. In fact, I can’t recall another film about sex, in any form, that is as unsexy as this one. There are sex scenes in the movie, but they are directed in the most traditional and conservative way imaginable, even if they include full female (but not male) nudity.

'Fifty Shades of Grey' director Sam Taylor-Johnson.Credit: AP

Even this nudity is presented in keeping with all the rules of American cinema, to ensure the movie isn’t given a rating that would limit the number of viewers who can rush to see it. [The film received an R rating in the United States, meaning that those under 17 can see it if accompanied by an adult.]

Beyond the economic considerations behind the way the movie’s sex scenes were presented, the way in which the ostensibly daring material ends up being translated into conservatism of the most traditional sort is most interesting. In its manipulative way, it reveals the attitude toward sex and its cinematic representation at this particular moment. The other point of interest derives from the story that James, and now Taylor-Johnson, have chosen to present to us.

At this moment in the history of the discourse about the relationship between men and women in contemporary culture and society, “Fifty Shades of Grey” does not give us a romantic drama about two characters, each with individual depth, but rather a type of metaphor about male control and female submission. From this perspective, too, rather than discussing the movie’s cinematic qualities, which are few, Taylor-Johnson’s film calls for a discussion of the way the book, movie and phenomenon surrounding them represent the current moment in terms of their inherent sociological statements, which relate to the relationship between women and men at this stage of the feminist movement – and, even more so, to the way in which women and men perceive their place and identity within today’s sociocultural reality.

It’s superficial, it’s manipulative, it’s off-putting and embarrassing. But there’s no denying that this says something about the moment in which the book was published and the movie released.

Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren (who learned about abuse from the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock, who directed her in “The Birds” and “Marnie”), is a likeable actress who imbues her character with a degree of intelligence. It’s simply the character herself who is limited.

On the other hand, the Northern Irish actor Jamie Dornan is a complete mystery to me. He looks like a model who walked out of a cologne ad, his abilities as an actor are limited in the extreme, and so he makes Christian seem like a completely dull and unappealing jerk, and it’s hard to see why Anastasia would be attracted to him. Maybe this, too, is some kind of statement – one that eludes me for now. Perhaps enlightenment will dawn soon.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is in cinemas now. Video clip is not suitable for children.

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