“Vanilla – your new favourite flavour,” says Anastasia Steele as she tosses her billionaire boyfriend Christian Grey a tub of ice cream early on in 50 Shades Darker. It’s a reference to her desire for a normal relationship with the BDSM-obsessed Christian, but it could just as well serve as a symbol for this sequel to 50 Shades of Grey, which isn’t many shades darker at all (unless one counts the diminished prominence of polished chrome amid the set design). If the first film – made by Turner Prize-nominated artist Sam Taylor-Johnson – was an artfully bland, somewhat self-aware exercise in delivering sexual kinks in the form of sleekly packaged blockbuster entertainment, this one (directed by Glengarry Glenn Ross’s James Foley) delivers more of the same, albeit with an even more boring conclusion that seems intent on delaying gratification in order to set up yet another instalment that probably won’t satisfy either. Maybe that’s the point, but it makes 50 Shades Darker increasingly tedious to sit through, which is a shame, as there are hints early on that this has a sense of humour about itself.
50 Shades Darker (18) **
Directed by: James Foley
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harding
Picking up where 50 Shades of Grey left off, it finds Christian (Jamie Dornan) desperate to win Ana back. Prior to meeting this hitherto virginal, Jane Austen-loving bookworm, his idea of love was to engage submissive women in protracted contract negotiations before trussing them up in his “red room” and getting off on the pain inflicted from spanking them raw. Ana, however, wasn’t into his sadistic side, so, in addition acting like a rich stalker, he agrees to new terms for a relationship, one based on more regular things … like having conversations, shopping for food instead of airlines, and sharing himself emotionally. There are still opportunities for the occasional spot of what Ana calls “kinky f***ery”, but he needs to understand he can’t own her the way he has his previous subs.
In these early stages, the film – which has clearly had plenty of money thrown at it – comes across as a sly riff on outdated romance movie conventions, with makeover scenes featuring high-end lingerie and strings of clitoral stimulants instead of expensive dresses and necklaces. Dakota Johnson is still the best thing about it, once again playing Ana with a mix of knowing mirth and melodrama, but once Christian and Ana are back together, the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go. Consequently it resorts to soap opera theatrics, with an ineffectual subplot involving one of Christian’s previous subs and Kim Basinger going all Dynasty as Christian’s jealous initiator into the world of S&M. Basinger’s casting is an obvious nod to 9 ½ Weeks and the 50 Shades films owe that movie – and the glut of erotic thrillers that followed (one restaurant scene in the new film is taken wholesale from the Sharon Stone flop Sliver) — a huge debt. The books, of course, famously started as Twilight fan fiction, but EL James’s apparent determination to make us take this world seriously (she’s one of the film’s producers and reportedly had final say on many of the creative decisions) feels like the film’s undoing. At certain points it starts morphing into the relationship-drama equivalent of a Batman movie, with the orphaned Christian coming across as a kinkier Bruce Wayne and his tragic childhood fleshed out to explain his desire to mete out punishment to those willing to endure it. Given that the first film made more than half-a-billion dollars worldwide, it’s safe to assume many will be more than willing to endure another round of this simply because of the branding. In this it’s no different from any other big blockbuster movie. Vanilla indeed.