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 studios.
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.