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Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

★★☆☆☆
Two Stars

Nothing says “Happy Valentine’s Day” like taking your beloved to watch some soft-core mainstream pornography about floggers, butt-plugs, and cable ties. As such, the cinema was jam-packed with dozens of gushing couples (and awkward third wheels) all gagging to see the big screen adaptation of E. L. James’ explosive erotic bestseller.

Christian Grey is a man who doesn’t “make love”; in his own words, he “fucks… hard”. The big question is whether Anastasia Steele – poor, helpless English Literature student Ana – can resist falling for this lusty dreamboat millionaire (hint: she falls… hard). When her journalist friend catches the flu, Ana steps in by interviewing enigmatic businessman Christian Grey (after nonsensically face-planting on his floor). The film dives straight into this painfully awkward first meeting, in which Ana gives Christian an uneasy amount of sass – which he likes, funnily enough. Turning the interview on Ana, who has captivated his beady eyes, Christian asks her which novelist first inspired her love for English literature – Hardy, Austen, or Brontë. She responds, obviously, with the sauciest, riskiest author of the three – Mr Thomas Hardy – and this answer, naturally, pleases Christian further. She has passed his test. They must be together. But there will be a bizarre snag to their relationship. He doesn’t “do” romance. If Ana is to be with him, she must submit to his intense S&M lifestyle, and his “Red Room of Pain” – sorry, “of Pleasure”. First, however, he must draw up a special contract for her, with some very peculiar demands. We all know how it goes. If you don’t, you must have been living under a rock for the past few years. Seriously.

As Christian begins stalkishly attempting to buy her affection (literally – he purchases her an Audi R8), Ana begins to question whether she can truly adapt to Christian’s sexual practices. The two would-be lovers engage in a weird game of cat and mouse. After repeatedly warning her to stay away, the king of mixed messages then tells Ana that he cannot live without her (men, right?). Of course, Christian can’t help his involuntary proclivity for forcing himself upon his sexual partners at unexpected intervals – he had a difficult childhood and unresolved mummy issues. The film never really decides whether it is promoting or shaming BDSM – what Christian refers to rather obliquely as his “physical pursuits”. It struggles to find a balance between shamelessly stripping Dakota Johnson’s Ana to complete nudity for at least half of her screen time, and conforming to that age-old custom of mainstream cinema whereby men don’t have penises – or, at least, they must never, ever be shown.

For a man with so many toys, Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey is not nearly as playful as he should be. We’re forced to accept this emotionally brutish but good-natured alpha male because he has enough cash to throw around and a chiseled face to which girls just can’t say no. A wittier, more self-conscious script would have helped. Though the audience reaction from the cinema was enjoyably electric (there were regular cheers, wolf-whistles, and smutty chuckles), it couldn’t help but feel a little slow, a little weak, a little grey.
Sam Taylor-Johnson just hasn’t managed to set a singular tone for this picture, which would have learnt well how to handle its slippery subject matter from films such as Secretary and Nymphomaniac. With adrenaline-pumping rides in Grey’s helicopter and glider, you’d expect the plot to take off a little better, but everything felt abruptly cut short – as if the entire film was constantly anticipating a string of sequels. The ending, for one thing, which was as cruelly teasing as Mr Grey himself, drew exasperated groans from the audience. In one of the better and funnier scenes, Ana and Christian negotiate the particulars of her contract, and she tells him to scratch out “anal fisting”. I should thank this quip for inspiring my titillating final line because, ultimately, this film feels a little bit ham-fisted.

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