By Preston Wilder
The good news is that Fifty Shades Darker, the long-awaited-by-no-one-in-particular sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey, is more erotic than the pallid original. The other good news – apart from the continuing winsome charms of Dakota Johnson as Anastasia – is that the sequel has a better director, James Foley (he made Glengarry Glen Ross and, more recently, a dozen episodes of House of Cards), who gives it some semblance of momentum. The bad news is that the sex is meaningless, just a smorgasbord of semi-related fantasies, and the other bad news is that the material (based on the EL James book and adapted by James’ husband, Niall Leonard) is thin verging on threadbare. Foley keeps it going for as long as he can, but the film is increasingly laughable.
The underlying problem is simple. This is a franchise that’s embarrassed by its premise and especially its hero, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) – a sexy billionaire who is, to put it bluntly, a sadist. Some might applaud the Fifty Shades phenomenon for bringing BDSM into the mainstream, part of the increasing social acceptance of what used to be known as sexual perversions – except that the films (don’t know about the books) seem horrified by Christian’s proclivities and do their best to either rationalise them, paint them as a sickness to be cured, or just airbrush them into oblivion. “You were getting off on the pain you inflicted!” snaps Anastasia, explaining why she can no longer be with the rich hunk. Hate to break it to you, Ana, but that’s kind of the point.
The result is that Fifty Shades of Grey was a bland film on a kinky subject, while Fifty Shades Darker is a better film on a non-existent subject. Christian and Ana get back together, this time in a ‘vanilla’ relationship with “no rules, no punishments”; the much-hyped spanking is limited to three (3) mild slaps. Instead, Christian becomes a kind of shorthand for sexual adventurousness: he blindfolds Anna, makes her take her panties off in public, fondles her in a crowded lift, etc. “Kiss me!” says our naked heroine, and he does – but gets down on his knees first. The sequel caters for a wider range of fantasies, which of course makes commercial sense but leaves the people looking incoherent. Sexual preference doesn’t quite flow from psychology, Christian now generically ‘troubled’, leaving only a Harlequin romance about a cold, possessive man having to be thawed by our long-suffering heroine.
Most of the film is on that level, from the opening glimpse of Grey’s damaged childhood which ‘explains’ why he is the way he is. Some of it, admittedly, feels sharp, like his need for control masking a fear of conflict in relationships (he’s upset when he and Ana have an argument, like any normal couple; “That wasn’t a fight, that was a conversation,” she explains gently) – but that kind of insight is rare, and the script just runs out of steam. Much is made of a mystery girl who confronts Ana in the street and even spies (how?) on the couple in bed together, but the payoff isn’t worth all the tension. Then there’s the helicopter sequence, which I won’t even try to describe; it deserves to be savoured in all its bewildering idiocy. Think of your favourite rom-com, now imagine if Godzilla had barged in around the two-thirds mark, then imagine if Godzilla had simply left again after 10 minutes and the film had continued as before. Something like that.
By any normal standard, Fifty Shades Darker is terrible. Viewed as a wish-fulfilment fantasy, it works a little better. There’s a bit near the end when Ana watches Christian in the gym as he works out, shirtless, and the sheer gratuitousness of the scene – it’s literally just a hunky actor showing off his body for no reason at all – is quite amusing. The whole concept is amusing, the unlikely notion of a bookish, rather timid young woman who apparently drives men crazy. Early on, Anastasia’s friend invites her to his photo exhibition where the exhibits include life-size photos of Ana herself, much to her embarrassment (creepy Christian buys them all up, of course: “I don’t like strangers gawking at you”). Christian needs her, all his money and power count for nothing without her; in return, she can save him from himself. If we give cheesy action movies a pass for being enjoyably bad (which we do, occasionally), we should probably extend the same courtesy to cheesy romantic movies.
That said, enough is enough. The Fifty Shades back-story is that Christian’s need for domination is a form of revenge against women, sparked by his crack-addict birth mother and childhood abuse at the hands of Elena (Kim Basinger). Even for a franchise torn between female masochism and feminist orthodoxy, this is ludicrous – and becomes even more ludicrous as evil Elena re-enters the picture, the ending of Fifty Shades Darker setting up cardboard villains in anticipation of what looks to be a truly painful third instalment. Please, no more trashy tomfoolery. Isn’t there a safeword we can use?
DIRECTED BY James Foley
STARRING Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Kim Basinger
US 2017 118 mins