Having created a straitjacket for myself with my New Year’s resolution, there was no other option but to go see this adaptation of a well-known (if not necessarily well-regarded) novel/extended fanfic by English writer E.L. James — which, I’ll say right now, I haven’t read, though that surely shouldn’t get in the way of appreciating the film/s (it didn’t for Harry Potter, after all). There’s certainly no shortage of women in control behind the scenes of the film, but the question was always going to be how much would be onscreen. As it happens, Dakota Johnson does really very well in the lead role of Anastasia Steele, intrepid college reporter interviewing youthful tycoon Christian Grey (a comparatively bland Jamie Dornan). I think most people know the set-up so I shan’t go any further here with a plot rehash here, because to do so at this point would frankly be boring, but it’s safe to say the film is shot with the kind of steely professionalism that could suggest any major world city as the setting (technically it’s Seattle, in a nod to its Twilight-fanfic origins perhaps, but seems to be shot in Vancouver, yet either way there’s very little sense of place). It fixates on the shiny, modern, expensively-clad business world of its male hero, the trappings of which are supposed to sway Ana towards love, but for which she generally shows very little enthusiasm. In some way, it’s a masterclass of minimalist acting by Johnson: one can never quite tell how much she really lusts for Christian, and how much is a sort of naive complacency or a lack of anything better to do with her time. It sets up her submissive role in the ensuing relationship, but the film makes efforts to suggest that through it all she knows what she’s doing and subtly exerts control, and there’s some really well-judged humour in possibly the film’s best scene — the boardroom contract-signing where she sets her limits within the relationship (how many onscreen relationships have clearly defined and agreed boundaries, after all?). That said, the ensuing erotic scenes are all rather restrained (I’m surprised at the 18 classification, frankly), and hark back to some hoary cinematic clichés (there’s an icecube scene that I think dates back to 9½ Weeks, and that’s not the only 80s retro throwback). In short, it’s a more successful film than I had feared, and Johnson will (I hope!) have a long career. Perhaps it may even be due a critical reassessment when we’ve passed this first phase of its infamy, but for now, let’s just say it’s as inoffensive as it has any right to be, given its romantic lead is a man who enjoys hurting women.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson; Writer Kelly Marcel (based on the novel by E.L. James); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Saturday 28 February 2015.