Last week, before seeing the movie and in preparation for this review, I set up what I thought would be a fun little challenge for myself: to read (and live-tweet, of course) the entirety of Fifty Shades of Grey in the course of a single sitting. The event lasted about six hours (with more than a little skimming going on, I’m unashamed to admit), and it left me thoroughly ill. What I had expected to be a fun and funny romp through the trenches of bad writing and light erotica turned out to be a fairly harrowing journey through the darkest pits of my own mind, evoking seething anger and a ever-sinking sense of hopelessness at the absurd horror of it all. It wasn’t just a bad book badly written, it was a dangerously naïve story of what struck me as nothing short of heinous abuse sanctioned by butchered psychology. My tweets slowed and eventually stopped; I was nauseous and close to tears. I crawled into bed though it was hardly 8pm, desperate to fall asleep and escape the rumbling clouds of impending depression I could sense flooding my horizon. It was that bad.
Maybe it was that experience that lent itself as a contrast to seeing the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. Maybe my expectations—and beyond that, my very sanity—had been brought so low by the necrotic flap of skin that was Fifty Shades The Book that I had no choice but to see Fifty Shades The Movie in a better light. Or maybe it’s just that the filmic version of Fifty Shades of Grey actually isn’t half bad. That it is, just maybe, a decent movie.
It took the full two hours and four minutes for me to admit that to myself. My shoulders had been tensed unconsciously, and as the credits rolled I felt them loosen, releasing the angry skepticism I’d held walking into the theater. I felt light, giddy even. A preposterous thought floated across my mind: That was…pretty great.
Was the story still ludicrous? Absolutely. It’s practically impossible to buy into the image of the 27-year-old multi-billionaire flying his own helicopter, but movie magic allows for the fantastic to be brought to life in a way that E.L. James’ static first-person writing never could. Whereas the book read like a poor virgin’s account of sex and wealth, the film takes the hovering author out of the equation, gifting us with lush panoramas of a fantasy world that does not attempt to ground itself in any sort of realism. Even the scenes that take place outside of Grey’s opulent world—those at Ana’s mother’s home, for example—are given a glossy overlay that gently reminds us that we are watching an exhibit from behind well-polished glass. This isn’t a true story, it is a fairy tale, and a dark one at that. It is Beauty and the Beast, and not the Disney version. I felt compelled to search my bookshelves for Angela Carter’s collection of dangerous and sensual fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, in which her words resonate as a near-perfect narration of what I just witnessed:
“When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, in glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.”
This is the true heart of Fifty Shades of Grey, which I will from here forward analyze purely as a film, because its source material serves only to invalidate what it ultimately delivers. It is a story about violence, both emotional and physical, and how that violence may be as much about pleasure as it is about pain. It is about how each of us walks the ragged edge of a chasm, carefully counting our paces and holding our balance, all the while knowing that, with just a little step, or a little push, we might plunge headlong into a darkness whose bottom we cannot see. Our protagonist, Anastasia Steele, of pretty face and ridiculous name, has decided to climb down along the cliffside to see how deep it goes.
Let us pause for a moment to acknowledge Dakota Johnson, an actress I had every intention of loathing. In a film populated by caricatures, she is beautifully and thoroughly human. Her Ana is no mere cipher; she would never deign to suffer that indignity. She is intelligent, curious, and, despite a certain physical innocence, completely wild at heart. She throws herself into adventure with a grace and maturity surely unavailable in most 21-year-old women. It is Johnson’s portrayal of Ana that singlehandedly elevates this film beyond anything I thought possible.
Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey left me wanting a bit, if only because (and I’ve already taken a lot of heat for expressing this sentiment) I do not find him to be nearly as physically attractive as the role demands. Visibly struggling to suppress his brogue, Dornan seems to be playing dress-up, a boy caught trying on his father’s expensive suits. His disdain for the material is palpable; a curl in his lip betrays a general sarcasm in his acting, which is a genuine shame. He played the part as written, but did not bring any depth to it, leaving Christian Grey as much a flat character on the screen as he was on the page. I suspect Dornan read the book in preparation for this role; had he not, he might actually have given Christian a fair shot. Oh, well. Grey’s gorgeously designed bachelor apartment has more than enough character to make up for it.
But what do you really want to know about? The sex, of course. Well, it was both more and less explicit than I expected. More, in that it managed a tactile sensuality that felt surprisingly real, much of which was accomplished through images of hair: a light halo of fuzz along Ana’s thighs, an inch of trimmed pubic hair as Christian unzips, Ana’s full and glorious bush. Less, in that it never got dirtied up: it was all slow pans and tasteful fades, and despite near unlimited access to Dakota Johnson’s nipples, it wasn’t much different from a typical night of The Vampire Diaries on The CW. But I believed it on an emotional level, not just the lust but the desperation of the act, the purity of its baseness. I feel compelled again to quote Carter, whose prose rings of the same dark music that vibrates across these scenes:
“His touch both consoles and devastates me; I feel my heart pulse, then wither, naked as a stone on the roaring mattress while the lovely, moony night slides through the window to dapple the flanks of this innocent who makes cages to keep the sweet birds in. Eat me, drink me; thirsty, cankered, goblin-ridden, I go back and back to him to have his fingers strip the tattered skin away and clothe me in his dress of water, this garment that drenches me, its slithering odour, its capacity for drowning.”
Hark, E.L. James, you sad imitation of an artist!
Much has already been written about the movie, so much that I felt a brief moment of panic before sitting down to write this review, knowing how many brilliant analyses, both in favor of and against this film, have already been published. The fundamental problems of this story have been talked near to death: its conflation of wealth with sexual power, its slander of the BDSM community, its apparent glorification of an abusive stalker. (To that last point, I would argue that Fifty Shades—the movie, not the book—does not actually glorify Grey at all, but rather Ana, who is wise enough to be disgusted by his behavior and strong enough to leave him. The problem is that many if not most viewers equate “leading man” with “romantic hero,” and thus are subject to ignoring and excusing Grey’s more despicable qualities.) But it turned out that all the reading in the world could not prepare me for the actual experience of watching Fifty Shades of Grey. It cannot been summed up in any essay or review, and for a cultural phenomenon of this scale, it should not be. Before you settle into using the arguments of your favorite critic, do go and see the film for yourself. I promise you will find within it wells of conversation you never imagined could be spurred by a movie about fucking in handcuffs. You might enjoy it. You might despise it. But you’re missing out if you don’t at least experience it.
50 Shades of Grey is out now in theaters nationwide.