Editor’s note: Our “Double Exposure” reviews pit two or more critics against one another on the same film to hash out their differences in opinion. Agree with what we have to say or want to offer your own take? Leave it in the comments below.
Josef Rodriguez: Fifty Shades of Grey has been one of the year’s most anticipated releases. It’s the first film based on a fan fiction, it’s adapted from a trilogy of books about BDSM, and the literary element of the source material is notoriously awful. This film has just about everything going against it, and it still made an astounding amount of money this weekend at the box office. But why?
The truth is, this movie isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s actually, dare I say, good. Whether you want to critique the excellent cinematography or the memorable soundtrack, the two lead performances, or the way the film handles BDSM, Fifty Shades of Grey has equipped itself with an arsenal of talent that has helped elevate the film far beyond what it should have been. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson takes an objectively terrible novel and turns it into a compulsively watchable romance, while never falling into the same traps as its literary predecessor.
Christian, for the most part, doesn’t come off as a psychopath. Anastasia has an honest-to-god character arc that may be the best thing about the film. A lot of what ruined the book is rectified in this adaptation, and the worst aspects of the novel are often the strongest aspects of the film (i.e. a lack of material for Ana and the abusive elements to the relationship).
All that said, the film still suffers greatly from a script full of unbearably hammy lines, and a somewhat lackadaisical pacing that offsets the film’s better moments. As Christian Grey, Jamie Dornan isn’t exactly the first choice, and his performance isn’t perfect, but he bounces off of co-star Dakota Johnson fairly well. Johnson, on the other hand, is fantastic as Anastasia Steele, and breathes so much life into a character who, for the entirety of her existence on the page, has been all but comatose.
Zack Miller: While I can’t even come close to your positive appraisal of the film, some of your logic along the way isn’t so bizarre to me. The cinematography is surprisingly adept, from the impeccably framed opening sequence that introduces Grey to the stifling orange wash that makes a “business meeting” into something much more heated. I certainly didn’t go in expecting the Kubrickian exactitude of Eyes Wide Shut or the extravagant artiness of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy — both far better films about unconventional sexuality — but, in terms of craft, I got more than I anticipated.
I also have to agree with you on the script: it’s atrocious. From the first scenes where Ana reassures her friend that she can find her way around the city (“I have GPS and a 4.0 GPA”) to Christian explaining to Ana how he has been so successful in business (“I’ve always been good at people”), there is line after line of tripe that I can only assume has been lifted straight from the shamefully popular excuse for literature that preceded it. The dialogue doesn’t merely stop at being corny, though. At times, like when Christian refers to taking Ana’s virginity as “rectifying her situation”, it is downright regressive in a such a way that I’m baffled anyone could endeavour to call this movie “sex-positive”.
That’s about where our similarities end. First of all, the film’s treatment of BDSM is beyond problematic; innumerable thinkpieces have tackled this more eloquently than I could hope to, but it’s much closer to sexual abuse than sexual open-mindedness. Kudos to Dakota Johnson for doing what she can in such a limited role, but the majority of her acting has her wordlessly conveying uncertainty and pain through her facial expressions. In a healthy relationship, those furrowed brows and lip quivers would be actual conversations.
What Ana goes through is as much of a character arc as a kid going to the store and eating an entire chocolate bar while he decides if he wants to pay for it. When she walks out on Christian at the end, baiting the audience for the most obvious sequel in recent memory, she has progressed nowhere. She is still uncertain about her feelings for him, her feelings about sex, and her feelings about herself. Maybe the stakes would have been higher if the romance between them was believable for even a second, but their fabricated chemistry is the emotional equivalent of the film’s “lewd” sex scenes that are afraid to show anything more than softcore nudity.
Josef: I have to disagree with your last point. There’s a definite and apparent arc to the character throughout the film. In the beginning of the movie, she would have never stood up for herself the way she did in the end of the film, and I think the movie does a good job with treating Ana like a woman who really is discovering herself and her sexuality. She comes to Christian with absolutely no experience. By the end of the film, her knowledge of sexuality, relationships, and love is far beyond what she could have ever expected, and that gives her the sense to realize that her relationship with Christian is wrong and unhealthy. On a side note, I absolutely loved the ending and totally fell for the cheap cliffhanger. I thought it was great. I felt like I had just spent a week watching some BDSM-themed incarnation of Days of our Lives.
In terms of how the film portrays BDSM, it’s a damn sight better than the book, and I’d go as far as saying they did it well for the most part. I find that most of the film’s most egregious offenses are a result of having to stay true to the book (author EL James was apparently quite a problem on the set), but the relationship between Christian and Ana is mostly agreeable. As a dominant, Christian is constantly attentive to Ana’s comfortability, staying open-minded and willing to negotiate the terms of their agreement at any and all junctures throughout the film. It’s clearer in the film that Ana ultimately has the upper hand in the relationship, and I think Taylor-Johnson plays with that more than the book did, with positive results. Admittedly, the film does veer into some creepy/stalker territory, but again I chalk it up to an obligation to stay true to the book, and wherever Taylor-Johnson can make improvements from the source material, she does.
Think Josef and Zack made some good points? Have a completely different opinion on Fifty Shades of Grey? Leave a comment below.
February 13, 2015
2 hr. 5 min.
Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora, Max Martini, Dylan Neal