Let’s take a moment to consider the actresses, actors and directors considered for the Fifty Shades of Grey film adaptation, before the producers eventually settled for its present unholy trinity of empty souls. For the role of Anastasia Steele (taken up by the lifeless Dakota Johnson), there was Shailene Woodley, Alicia Vikander or Elizabeth Olsen in particular, as well as a bunch of other actresses who have proved themselves adept at conveying some form of emotion (Olsen was the only good part of Spike Lee’s Oldboy, for crying out loud). For Christian Grey (snagged by insufferable poser Jamie Dornan), there was Garrett Hedlund (who could have played a genuine badass) and Ryan Gosling (who could complain?), while the director’s chair was open to Angelina Jolie (capable of effective erotica), Gus Van Sant (capable of effective darkness) and Steven Soderbergh (capable of general effectiveness).
It feels as though any combination of such talent – preferably Hedlund, Vikander and Van Sant – could have brought something interesting to the turgid E. L. James novel which, it’s always worth reminding, originated as creepy Twilight fan-fiction. But the question is: was the ship ever really going to set sail, as opposed to sinking immediately after departure? With the source material being such a runaway success, and with the adaptation’s box-office reapings pretty much guaranteed before a deal was even signed, the wise move was to make a respectable surface-level production for the minimum budget required for creating convincing Hollywood gloss, which involved signing on a relative unknown (Johnson), a talentless hack (Dornan) and the first of the Young British Artists to drift over to Hollywood (Sam Taylor-Johnson), accompanied by nothing else.
That’s the best financial option. The best moral option would have been to ban James from ever writing again, and to set fire to every existing copy of her masochistic rape fantasy, which has been so effective in perpetuating the message that, yes, women, you are all pieces of meat, and you do exist only to be used by men in whichever way they please. Christian Grey is the epochal “attractive male” of the 2010s, in that he has a “bespoke” haircut, strong jawline, lack of personality, a business card (which even has a watermark!) and absolutely shit tons of money. Oh yeah, and he’s a rapist, who spends the entirity of Fifty Shades of Grey‘s gruelling 125 minutes hounding Anastasia to sign a contract which declares he can fuck* her whenever, wherever and with whatever he wishes, even though most of the film’s set pieces include him deciding, on a total whim, that he’s going to fuck* her anyway. (*Actual Christian Grey parlance: “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard”. Make no mistake, pussies.)
In Secretary – which Fifty Shades‘ story literally rips off – the dominant figure, James Spader’s E. Edward Grey (GREY!?!) is a cruel, sadistic male who spanks Maggie Gyllenhaal halfway into the following week, but that’s when she deliberately does something that she knows will “permit” such punishment. Most reasonable BDSM-centric films follow this suit, because that’s what BDSM actually is; it’s not, as is argued in Fifty Shades of Grey, desiring some young ingenue, deciding you’ll claim that young ingenue, and deciding that she’ll become your submissive, without really letting her have a choice of her own. That, boys and girls, is a rapist’s mindset: objectifying, sexualising, and declaring complete ownership over another human being.
The movie lost me at the opening soundtrack, a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” which, surprisingly for its performer Annie Lennox, is devoid of any sort of energy. The original is a terrifying, twisted tale of desire that’s more than a bit creepy, but Lennox’s cover reduces it to a mere melody which, without Hawkins’ maniacal belly-laughs, is completely neutered. It’s symptomatic of the entire movie: something that is at heart very disturbing, but is presented as something nice and accessible, which suckers worldwide have lapped up in their baffling droves.
And because it’s weird for a woman to cover this song given the topic of female submission throughout the rest of the film, it also becomes a mini-essay on the film’s lack of conceivable logic. Storytelling shortcuts are used in ways that eliminate sense, such as when Anastasia gets wasted in a club, which of course prompts Christian Grey to turn up, stalkingly, as he does wherever she goes; shortly before fainting, she says “I think I’m gonna faint,” which no-one ever actually says before fainting. This does, however, at least let the viewers know that her curious next move – falling to the floor unconscious – is that thing that some people refer to as “fainting”, which absolutely nobody could have even guessed at otherwise. This is only one of dozens more examples, but I’m not about to waste any more effort giving them the time of day.
The only good parts of Fifty Shades of Grey are similarly flattened by its bad aspects; its all-star soundtrack consists of only one good original song (alongside the one good non-original song: Beyoncé’s “Haunted”), which is the Ellie Goulding track “Love Me Like You Do”. As with many tracks with a Max Martin writing credit, the song has its own inherent emotional pull, and when it erupts in Fifty Shades, it feels like a high point. And it is, apart from the fact that all it does is soundtrack the world’s most boring helicopter ride. See, that’s Christian Grey’s world: he’s a BDSM “freak” whose whippings and spankings are barely enunciated through any form of filmmaking technique, which creates the impression that he’s just a fucked up rich person who likes hurting stuff as a way of abusing his power – but not causing too much pain, because he’s actually a really nice guy (I mean, just look at how much money he has! What a dreamboat <3).
Thankfully, we have another two years before the next one ties up the entire world and flogs it to within an inch of its sanity, but if this first chapter is anything to go by, then we should all fear the raper, as each installment from this standpoint is guaranteed to be ever more insipid than the last.