blank'/> Cinema Reviews: Fifty Shades of Extreme Disappointment

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fifty Shades of Extreme Disappointment

Let's give some quick context to this: a) I watched a Chinese online version, so the sex scenes were heavily edited and chopped up which may have affected my enjoyment b) I actually enjoyed the book (despite some of the mawkish dialogue e.g. "laters, baby", shudder) and really found the character of Grey compelling c) I found Ana to be a rather capricious and uninteresting mainstream figure d) I would have killed to play Christian Grey myself.

Now, why doesn't this film work?

Let's start with the source material; my theory on why the film has been roundly critically panned (and more importantly by women, it's hitherto chief audience) is that what was safe to enjoy as a fantasy and purely in the headspace of millions of housewives has now been made flesh, made real, and the reality is Grey, in person, is kind of scary and distasteful.

Does any woman truly want to give over all her personal power to a rich, stiff arsehole? In the book and film even Ana didn't.

Also, BDSM has always been a marginalized, fringe culture, a proclivity best enjoyed in private, so when you're trying to marry that with a Twilight-esque romance craving audience, it will always jar. You're trying to marry sexual violence with mainstream viewing; on page, as fantasy, maybe acceptable, realized on film, awkward and unsettling.

The film has done well at the box office, but I imagine this has more to do with the existing fan base and people's anxiety and gravitational pull towards sex.

Now, the director: Sam Taylor Johnson, apparently one of the Young British Artists (Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst et al.), famous for a serious of photographs ("Crying Men") of high-profile actors in tears (Laurence Fishburne, Robin Williams, Benicio Del Toro etc). She also produced one of the most dry and uninspired sequences in "Destricted" (2006), Death Valley where a guy has a wank and cums in the middle of the desert.

Where is the sense of playfulness or experimentation here? Did author E.L. James's reputed heavy handedness in this film kill that as well? Johnson shoots this in the most rudimentary, kitchen-sink fashion imaginable. It reeks of Twilight blandness. Why did she not play with more extreme close-ups of the principal character's lips and eyes; the book relies on these details to create the heat between the characters; Grey's subtle smiles and blazing eyes observed by Ana - there was so much leeway here for Johnson to experiment with editing and amp up the tension between them.

As it is, there is very little sexual tension on display here, and, as observed by other reviewers, seemingly no chemistry between the stars.

Performance wise, Dakota Johnson makes for a remarkable Ana, like Elijah Wood before her with Frodo, she manages to realize the reader's (Or at least this readers) impressions of Ana, while still keeping her performance alive. The lip biting is never mannered or affected which it could have been. For me at least Ana had stepped off the page and I even liked and sympathized with her more than I did in the book.

But Grey. Alas, Jamie Dornan just didn't pull off the Grey I imagined. As I prefaced, I'm jealous of the cat, but I also don't envy his position: this is not an easy assignment. Not only does he have to pull off reader's expectations of the character, he has to be impossibly handsome (Dornan is hot, but he doesn't 'embody' sexiness), cold, icy, mercurial, tortured, smooth and debonair, but above all Grey must have a kind of calculating, animal intensity that leaves you breathless. Dornan just never has that animal force you'd expect of this character, not even burning or bristling underneath the surface. He also isn't scary, just kind of doe-eyed and stiff. Dornan also seems uncomfortable with the trappings of power and control (Granted Grey is meant to be struggling with this as he falls in love with Ana, but Dornan portrays this struggle flatly), he just doesn't seemed to come from this entitled, efficient world.

This part would have been perfect for actors like Sean Penn, Ed Harris or Ralph Fiennes (And yes I realize they're all way too old:p), intense actors who have that innate 'animalistic' sense to them, who can portray characters with complex interiors and are comfortable with power, enjoying power and displaying power on screen. Dornan isn't powerful, he doesn't make you WANT to give over power to him.

However, as I continued watching, what I noticed he is very good at is humanising and attempting to make likable this potentially shady and repulsive character. Dornan grounds and attempts to make a charming romantic lead out of twisted, child-abused CEO who enjoys torturing women. As I said before, no easy assignment for an actor.

Despite the eroticism and Twilight-esque romantic leanings of the book, I always felt that Fifty Shades was primarily a character study of Grey and Ana's compatible and conflicting traits. This is what I was hoping to see on a screen, a scorching whirlwind of passion, love and conflict between two characters. This is a largely dull and tepid affair. The leads don't ignite and the entire film just falls short of any expectations.

Ultimately Gilbert Gottfried's reading of the book remains infinitely sexier;)

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