Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Kim Basinger, Bella Heathcote
Directed By: James Foley
Running Time: 131 mins
BBFC Certificate: 18
UK Release Date: June 26th 2017 (UK)
Oh, dear God. How do you manage to make a film that’s supposedly about kinky sex be this boring?
At the end of Fifty Shades Of Grey, the timid Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and her S&M-obsessed billionaire paramour, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), had parted company. However, it doesn’t take long until they’re back together, with Christian promising he loves Ana enough that he wants to be her partner rather than her master. She isn’t sure, but they start dating again, and are soon negotiating a different kind of contract than the last movie. It’s a more unspoken one where they attempt to create a more equal relationship, despite Christian’s issues and ‘boundaries’ (which handily you can literally paint on him in lipstick).
It’s not going to be all smooth sailing though, as there are various figures out to cause them trouble, including the previously unseen ‘Mrs. Robinson’ character, Elena (Kim Basinger), who inducted Christian into kinkiness and isn’t quite ready to let him go. There’s also Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of Christian’s earlier submissives, and Anastasia’s boss, Jack Hyde, who may be looking to make a different sort of sexual powerplay.
Sadly though, that makes the movie sound way more interesting than it is. Out of the 131 minutes of this longer, ‘Unmasked Edition’, there’s only something interesting happening for about a tenth of that time, and pretty much none of that comes from the additional footage. Indeed, at one point they even have to have a random, unnecessary and utterly inconsequential helicopter crash just so it looks like something is going on. You might be thinking those 13 interesting minutes are when the sex is happening, but even that they manage to make dull, perfunctory and often silly.
I’m willing to bet that in the third movie, Fifty Shades Freed, we will get one shot where we can just about see Dornan’s pubes, and one where we see his butt in all its toned glory. Johnson meanwhile will again be floating about naked a lot of the time. After all, that’s what we got in the first few films, and done in a way where it become increasingly clear there are strict limits on how much of the actor we’re allowed to see.
Now, Dornan’s nudity clauses wouldn’t matter so much, if this wasn’t a franchise built around sex and the promise of it. Despite what author EL James would like to think, nobody read her books for the plots. The result in the movie is innumerable sex scenes where Dornan stays surprisingly clothed. Now I’m not saying he needs to get his kit off more for purely prurient reason, but the fact Johnson is so often naked while he barely undoes his flies, becomes oddly distracting.
The scenes are so sterile that it’s difficult not to get distracted by such things. For example, rather than being pulled into the eroticism, you may end up thinking more about the physics of whether his trousers really could stay that well while shagging Ana (but then, the pants round the ankles look would ruin the aesthetic). Likewise, you’ll probably be pondering Christian’s ability to get an (unseen) erection in milliseconds, as well as how Dornan seems to have so much lower neck hair in close-ups, but so little chest hair in mid-shots.
What is most frustrating about the movie, is that there’s no reason for it to be this way. There are numerous elements and ideas that could have been pulled together into an interesting story. You have characters that represent different ideas about sexual power and love, simmering tensions, and even in the central relationship between Christian and Ana, you have two people having to relearn the rules of love and negotiate a way to make both of them happy. You therefore have the potential for something fairly interesting and which might even have spoken to the human condition. But no, instead we have something inept, disjointed and which doesn’t even seem to realise the potential it has.
Watching the featurettes, I can’t help but feel the problem is EL James, who may have created a literary ‘phenomenon’, but despite thinking otherwise, doesn’t appear to know what she’s doing or understand her own books. However, her creative control over the movies – and the fact her partner wrote the script – seems more of a hindrance than a help. At the point in the special features where she’s talking about how she didn’t really know where the story was going or what she was doing when she wrote the first two books (as internet fan fiction), it’s clear that her push towards a strong fidelity to the novels in their film adaptation is one of the main reasons it’s so dull, lifeless and lacking in narrative drive.
Many have also criticised the wooden acting of Dornan and Johnson, but it’s really not their fault. The script doesn’t make them believable as human beings. They’re saddled with unintentionally hilarious dialogue, utterly flat characterisation and Christian’s constant cringe-inducing allusions to how much money he has, meaning that the actors have nothing to work with. They don’t even bother with the Ana’s occasional wry, knowing humour this time around. And with so little time spent on building the connection between them, it’s little wonder that they come across as wet fish, and their kinkiness dull and pedestrian.
And it’s also undeniable that if people think the uber-tame S&M depicted in the movie is taboo-busting, they really need to get out more. Christian says he’s a sadist, but if that’s true, somewhere the Marquis de Sade is shaking his head and saying that this champagne sadist doesn’t know he’s been born.
Overall Verdict: It’s quite an achievement to make a movie with this much kinky sex quite so boring. However, Fifty Shades Darker manages to be tedious, silly and frustrating in the extreme.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac
Theatrical & Extended Cuts
Fifty Shades Freed Tease
‘Writing Darker’ Featurette
‘A Darker Direction’ Featurette
‘Dark Reunion’ Featurette
‘New Threats’ Featurette
‘The Masquerade’ Featurette
‘Intimate With Darker’ Featurette