The vaguely good news is that this softcore porn corn is not quite the punishing mess it could have been. The bad news is that it’s vanilla all the way and couldn’t be less erotic if it tried. Blame the two bland performances at the centre of this insipid adaptation of EL James’s fan-fiction sex fantasy that became an inexplicable pop phenomenon. All the talk of a lack of chemistry between Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan sadly turns out to be true.
Johnson is all annoying, wide-eyed virginal innocence as literature student Anastasia Steele, assigned to write a school newspaper article on a 27-year-old billionaire business magnate and her university benefactor. That’s Christian Grey, who’s played by Irish model-turned-actor (and star of serial-killer drama The Fall) Dornan with such stilted awkwardness, it’s more 50 shades of grating. Sorry girls, and some boys, but do you really find his wonky eyes sexy?
After unsubtly landing at the mega-mogul’s feet after tripping over the doorstep in his Seattle high-rise office (as airlessly antiseptic as the entire movie), Ana gets invited into dour Grey’s twilight world of hanky-spanky after chance encounters of the clearly manipulated kind. Soon she’s whisked off by private helicopter to share in his kinky taste for bondage, blindfolds and riding crops after being asked to consider a mutual consent agreement. Not that the contract, the reading of which is as pervy as it ever gets, is signed in this first part of the threatened trilogy. No matter, control freak Grey still allows Anastasia entrance to his hilariously tacky red torture dungeon loaded with an array of handcuffs and B&D accoutrements.
More qualified opinion-makers on the weird gender politics on show in this dumb rom-dom can comment on the fact that it took three women – director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), scriptwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr Banks) plus author James – to create this misogynistic morass where obscene wealth is the lubricant of submission and expensive gifts the point of gaining sexual freedom. More M&S than S&M, it takes 40 minutes before any bedroom action and then the tame subjugation is strictly on Red Shoe Diaries level as the storyline becomes run of the Mills and Boon, the derisive dialogue increases in laughability – how did they keep straight faces uttering “My tastes are very singular” – and the soundtrack reflects the obvious (Beast of Burden by the Rolling Stones, really?)
True, Taylor-Johnson attempts to add a modicum of playful humour to the early assignations before they convert into a consistent hoot of steamy climaxes supposedly testing the limits of sadism when Dornan does everything to ensure his genitalia doesn’t show. An off-screen whipping is the ultimate shameless titillation. And true, everything is filmed in that super-slick way reserved for Flake commercials. But this skirts high camp way too much to be remotely taken seriously as a provocative female-skewed fantasy. Furthermore it really does become a tedious drag, as everyone on screen and behind it is clearly flogging a brand-strategised dead horse by the time the restrained non-ending comes into view to set up the second part. I can hardly wait!
Far better to see the latest Peter Strickland miniature The Duke of Burgundy, charting the same territory with more inventive class, or 9½ Weeks for good honest exploitation, or 2001’s Secretary which approached the same tricky subject with intelligence and smart wit. But those who loved the book will doubtless find a lot to enjoy within this all-tease/no substance, limp kinkfest despite the sprawling book being ruthlessly edited down to the basics. Others will consider it nothing more than a crashing bore – The Story of Oh? – and wonder what all the fuss is about. My safe words? Final credits, please!