Fifty Shades of Grey: what are the critics saying?

"Mild provocation," "hilariously overblown", "turgid and tedious" – Dakota Johnson impresses opposite Jamie Dornan but reviewers remain underwhelmed

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Adapting a best-selling novel is a mixed blessing. Yes, there’s an enormous audience clamouring to discover what’s been done with their favourite book – but that very same fan base are tricky to please, especially when said book features a hoard of racy sex scenes. 

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EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey has plenty of critics, but as a multi-million seller it’s ripe material for the silver screen treatment – add in The Fall’s Jamie Dornan, plus pre-sale sell outs and  a Lego makeover, and the expectations are sky high. But can Fifty Shades live up to the hype? The first reviews are in and the critics are… undecided. 

The Guardian‘s Jordan Hoffman calls Dornan “adequate” but is full of praise for his co-star Dakota Johnson who “squeezes believability out of one of the more silly romantic entanglements in recent popular culture.” He adds: “After the reams of commentary EL James’ books have inspired, this big screen adaptation still manages to be about people, and even a little bit sweet.”

Writing in Variety, Justin Chang weighed up the pros and cons: “Glossy, well cast, and a consistent hoot until it becomes a serious drag, this neo-“9 1/2 Weeks” is above all a slick exercise in carefully brand-managed titillation – edgier than most grown-up studio fare, but otherwise a fairly mild provocation in this porn-saturated day and age.” 

Although, as the film drew on, he grew more underwhelmed. “As our heroine becomes ever more aware of just how dark Christian’s dark side is, Fifty Shades of Grey starts to lose its sense of humour and elicit the wrong kind of giggles – climaxing with a hilariously overblown S&M montage laden with so many slow-motion dissolves as to suggest that Ana wasn’t the only one wearing a blindfold during the assembly.”

According to Sheri Linden in The Hollywood Reporter, “it’s a slow build to the smutty bits, and one that’s disappointingly devoid of tension. Even so, the movie is, by definition, a stronger proposition than the book because it strips away the oodles of cringe-inducing descriptions and internal monologue that tip the text heavily toward self-parody.” 

Awarding the film three stars, Time Out‘s David Ehrlich writes: “A watered-down adaptation that’s embarrassed to be wet, Fifty Shades of Grey is a sex-positive but hopelessly soft-core erotic drama that fails to be even a fraction as titillating as the E.L. James books that inspired it. And yet, that’s exactly why it works.”

Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum gives the film a B minus grade. “The movie Fifty Shades of Grey is considerably better written than the book. It is also sort of classy-looking, in a generic, TV-ad-for-bath-oil way. Dakota Johnson, who plays the virgin English-literature major Anastasia Steele, and Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian Grey, the wildly rich and sexually…particular business titan who wants Miss Steele in his playroom, are exceedingly attractive actors with enviably supple bodies well suited to nakedness. And really, under the circumstances, movable parts matter more than acting skills.”

But she calls the film’s star-studded soundtrack a “turn off”: “every time a sex scene comes on, some lady starts singing a big, whooshy Sex Scene song. Hello, Beyoncé, Ellie Goulding, Sia, Jessie Ware, Skylar Grey.”

For USA Today‘s Claudia Puig, it was not an enjoyable cinema experience. “Sitting through the turgid and tedious S&M melodrama that is Fifty Shades of Grey is its own form of torture.

“The dialogue, based on E.L. James’ best-selling book, is laughable, the pacing is sluggish and the performances are one-note. Perhaps worst of all, chemistry is nil between Jamie Dornan as billionaire Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson as curious college student Anastasia Steele.”

And finally, Eric Kohn at Indiewire notes, “The adaptation of EL James’ salacious novel delivers on the source material – but that’s not exactly a compliment.

“Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson from Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, the considerable talent behind the camera and a modicum of considerable performances yield a few undeniable guilty pleasures, but most viewers will be seeking a safe word to escape this two-hour-plus mess of half-baked excess.”

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Fifty Shades of Grey is released in UK cinemas on 13th February. Watch the trailer below (complete with an aforementioned “Sex Scene song”…)