By 2014, E L James’s erotic fantasy “Fifty Shades of Grey” had sold over 100 million copies, been translated into more than 50 languages and unseated J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series as the fastest-selling novel of all time. Some critics reviled the book for its inaccurate portrayal of the BDSM community and glorification of an “abusive” relationship, but U.S. sales continued to skyrocket. With a novel this virile and phenomenal, the obvious next step was to adapt it into a movie so the series could rake in even more cash — and, more importantly, give millions of fans the opportunity to see all the bondage-suffused, manipulative romance played out on a screen, not in their imagination.

Fifty Shades of Grey

Universal Pictures
Rave and Quality 16

As I have never read James’s novel, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I saw “Fifty Shades.” But upon leaving the theater, I was struck by how seriously the film took itself. “Fifty Shades of Grey” rejects its trashy pedigree, using an R rating and the stylistic specificity of film to transform the scruffy plot and find its inner goddess. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson (“Nowhere Boy”) swathes the film in desaturated tones and gorgeous close-ups and sets the action to the pulsing musical beats of Beyoncé and The Rolling Stones. The film uses every tool in its cinematographic playroom to let viewers know that this isn’t the same fantasy they read on their flight to Newark. It’s a slow, sleek and sexy film, markedly subtle even when it doesn’t have to be.

The film’s two-hour runtime unfolds in languid confidence. At times, the deliberate pacing borders on sluggish, but oftentimes this carefulness works in the plot’s favor. After Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, “Ben and Kate”) attempts her fateful interview with millionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, “The Fall”), the pair take almost 40 minutes to climb into bed. But their ensuing foreplay is delightfully fun, and these awkward encounters serve as a means of demonstrating who they are as characters. Christian meets Ana in the hardware store where she works and asks her to show him where he can buy the cable ties, ropes and tape he needs for his handyman collection. It’s a cheeky way to introduce that Christian is into all things kinky, and Ana can’t look into his dreamy gray eyes without blushing.

The film is surprisingly well-cast, and Johnson’s performance as Ana is especially strong. She embodies the dichotomy of Ana’s character perfectly — despite her contractual status as a submissive, she’s smart and self-confident, always setting her limits and pulling back when Christian doesn’t treat her with respect. Dornan gives a slightly less compelling performance as Mr. Grey, but with those eyes that seem to simultaneously scream “fuck me” and “I have a room full of zip ties and tape and I might use them for more than just sex stuff,” he embodies the character even without a spectacular performance. Despite rumors that the two actors despise one another in real life, they exude chemistry whenever they share the screen. Especially in the more tender scenes where Christian exposes his emotional vulnerability, Johnson and Dornan shine as a couple.

But their romantic encounters translate rather poorly to the screen. Maybe it’s because the film is rated R instead of the NC-17 that the book surely merits, but the sex scenes are remarkably unsexy. Nudity isn’t a crucial component for a scene to be steamy; still, it’s unfair that the woman must bare all and the camera cuts away before viewers could glimpse a naked man. For a film shamelessly marketed for female viewers, and written and directed by women, the film displays Ana like some piece of spineless meat rather than the strong lady we (and Christian) know she is. Christian holds his whip and leers at her, while the camera shows her suffering from his point of view. The screen rarely affords us her perspective. This is quite a far cry from a novel narrated by Ana. And much of what goes on in the playroom doesn’t read as particularly titillating. Everyone around me in the theater burst into giggles when Christian tickled Ana with a giant, absurd prop peacock feather. This silliness is characteristic of the sex scenes in the rest of the movie; for an adaptation of an erotic novel, the bedroom action is fairly flaccid.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” may be best encompassed with the words of Christian Grey: this movie is “fifty shades of fucked-up.” While it’s endowed with a good cast and features solid filmmaking, like Christian himself, the movie has a hollow heart. With the abusive undertones implied in Christian’s final seduction and an ending that gives viewers the cinematic equivalent of blue balls, the film wipes out any semblance of fun it built up in the previous two hours. “Fifty Shades” tries to be serious, but its inner goddess gets buried under a mountain of narrative problems that might have been avoided had the film just embraced the beautiful trash it was meant to be.

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