EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey is the publishing sensation of the decade, and a book credited with revitalising an ailing industry.
It’s unlikely that Sam Taylor-Johnson’s movie adaptation will have quite the same impact on the film industry, but it’s fair to say that anticipation, if not expectations, are sky-high.
The story — for those of you who may have stowed away in the boot of the Mars Rover — revolves around Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), an English Lit student who interviews Christian Grey (Northern Ireland’s Jamie Dornan) for her college magazine.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Anastasia — or Ana — is attracted to ‘the world’s most eligible billionaire bachelor’, a handsome 27-year-old who is — rather more surprisingly, given Ana’s frumpy appearance and klutzy behaviour — equally drawn to her. The reasons why become apparent as the story progresses: Christian is a self-professed ‘control-freak’ who requires a submissive sexual partner to allow him enact his fantasies of domination, and the naïve Ana fits the bill perfectly.
Unfortunately for Christian, Ana doesn’t really take his fantasies seriously, even though Christian has gone so far as to draw up a contract outlining both parties’ commitment to the relationship. Happy to humour his role-playing games, and despite throwing herself whole-heartedly into her role, Ana engages physically at one remove. Emotionally, however, it’s a whole different game for Ana — which is to say, it isn’t a game at all. When she falls in love with Christian, and demands a reciprocal emotional response, the conflict between Christian’s desire for fetish and Ana’s need for genuine feeling threatens to destroy their burgeoning relationship.
If that sounds like a standard love story, then that’s exactly what Fifty Shades is — albeit one given an added frisson due to Christian’s passion for handcuffs, ropes, canes and all the other accoutrements of BDSM to be found in his beautifully appointed ‘playroom’. Oddly, and despite its reputation, Fifty Shades isn’t particularly raunchy. There are more sex scenes than your average romance flick, but it’s also true the majority of them are more artfully contrived, and sensually played out, than Hollywood’s usual penchant for wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.
The film also benefits hugely from two strong performances in the lead roles.
Jamie Dornan, who first came to our attention in the TV series The Fall, and already runs the risk of being typecast, may be a little callow to persuade us that he has the acumen to become filthy-rich at a relatively young age, but he certainly has enough brooding presence to suggest he can be filthy enough to fuel a million female fantasies. He also manages to invest a rather difficult role with considerable charm, given that all those shades of Christian Grey seem to be negative ones: he is capable of generosity and kindness, but for the most part Christian is shallow, compulsive, pompous, selfish, predatorial, self-serving and petulant.
Dakota Johnson, meanwhile, provides the movie with its heart and moral centre as a young woman who is sexually innocent as the story begins, but who is sufficiently smart and independent to expect that her life should be lived on her own terms rather than at the beck and call of a man who seems to be something of a hollow creature. Her frumpiness is a little overdone at the start, but she quickly comes into her own and delivers a graceful, feisty and thoughtful performance.
Slowly paced, as the story and the relationship progresses by way of two steps forward, one mistake back, Fifty Shades is a solidly constructed, old-fashioned story despite its apparently radical obsession with subversive sexuality. It’s the latest version of Beauty and the Beast, basically — although everyone involved should be cheered from the rafters for delivering a finale a long way removed from the traditional happy-ever-after.