Film review: Fifty Shades of dull fails to excite

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan star in the 'relentlessly competent' Fifty Shades of Grey. Picture: PA
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan star in the 'relentlessly competent' Fifty Shades of Grey. Picture: PA
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Well, at least the title is somewhat accurate. Fifty Shades of Grey may not boast a protagonist of great nuance or depth, but in bringing EL James’s mega-selling bonkbuster to the big screen, director Sam Taylor-Johnson has found myriad ways to make it as dull as the colour of Grey’s prominently featured tie collection.

Fifty Shades of Grey (18)

Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan

* *

All tease, very little sleaze, its story of a virginal student called Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) who falls in love with an S&M-obsessed billionaire (Jamie Dornan) is neither terribly acted nor honkingly scripted, it’s just relentlessly competent – a ­sanitised forbidden-love story, with occasional bondage and ­infrequent spanking.

Taylor-Johnson, the Turner-nominated visual artist who made the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, is, of course, smart enough to know she’s trading in trash here, just as Paul ­Verhoeven was when he made the artfully awful Showgirls. Alas, she doesn’t seem all that interested in having any fun with the source material – and the much-hyped sex and nudity is very much of the coy sort favoured by advertisers trying to sell you high-end products.

When Christian informs Anastasia early on of his sexual proclivities – as he says, he’s not a “hearts and flowers guy” – the film writes a cheque it’s unwilling to cash, even when it enters his infamous “playroom”, a crimson-coloured sex dungeon containing more instruments of torture than a CIA black site.

What we get instead is a manscaped torso here, a tastefully lit breast there, followed by a quick cut-away to some designer wallpaper depicting crashing waves and frothy surf.

Even Anastasia’s shiny new Macbook seems to have been configured with a tasteful search engine: when asked by Christian to undertake some online “research”, she comes across only artfully composed shots of bondage models in moody 

The film does look beautiful, though. Taylor-Johnson has an eye for an arresting visual and, working alongside Edinburgh-based cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, she makes even ludicrous scenes like Christian flying Anastasia around the city in his chopper shimmer with the sort of neo-noir cool you’d find in a Michael Mann movie.

Unfortunately there’s just no heat. Dakota Johnson may play Anastasia with lip-biting zeal, but she generates zero chemistry with Dornan, who had more charisma as the serial killer in BBC TV series The Fall.

That, of course, may be a fault of the source material. Though I’m not among the 100 million who have discreetly downloaded James’s opus on e-book, knowing that it started life as Twilight fan fiction makes it easy to see where the characters’ 
vacuity comes from.

Anastasia’s inexplicable attraction to a sensitive man cursed with a compulsion to physically hurt her is pure Bella and Edward, though the oddest thing about it is the way it tries to make legal documents erotic.

Throughout, Taylor-Johnson attempts to build dramatic tension from Anastasia’s hesitation to sign a non-disclosure agreement detailing exactly what Christian has in store for her. Back and forth they go in the boardroom of his phallic-shaped office building, scoring out descriptions of painful-sounding sex acts while breathing heavily and staring at each other longingly. The camera, meanwhile, drifts over the document itself, lingering on naughty words.

This is a film that prefers text to sex. It’s all talk and only ­occasionally no trousers.