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‘Fifty Shades’ of Tame – Film Review

I recently watched the feminist fantasy Outlander on STARZ. The explicit nature of the sex surprised me. In one particular scene, the 18th century Scottish kilt-wearing brute Jamie spanks his time-travelling 20th century wife Claire with a stout belt on her bare bottom. Jamie Fraser has the nerve to actually enjoy administering the punishment, which is meant to show his eavesdropping clan who is in charge in this patriarchal marriage. The incident inspires the kind of quarrel required of women’s romance, including dreamy make-up sex and even a few tears of remorse from the man.

Such is the trickery of dominance and submission.

I raise this in relation to Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the first of three bestsellers by 51-year-old E. L. James (her pseudonym), because damn if the cable TV sex wasn’t steamier. The show was also more embedded in a real relationship than the antiseptic gymnastics propelling the boundary-crossing blockbuster’s center. The story is simplicity itself – college senior Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and youthful billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) meet cute while she interviews him for her school paper. They flirt and drunken call their way into a relationship of sorts, defined by whether or not she is capable of becoming the submissive to his dominant in the sexual and emotional game that takes place in his carefully curated playroom in the shadows of “normalcy.”

Rarely has risky sex seemed more mundane or have I felt more nostalgia for the risqué movies of my youth – The Night Porter or Last Tango in Paris. I thought Fifty Shades was as laughable as Nine ½ Weeks – and director Sam Taylor-Johnson admits she used it as a reference.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of 50 Shades for non-readers is the feeling of is-that-all-there-is? A bit of rope, some hanging around, six smacks – it’s tame enough to make Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones smirk. My God, even the sex in House of Cards pushes more buttons and boundaries – and that show focuses on the politics.
On the other hand, the biggest bonus of the film is that it sheds the book’s clunky writing. The prose is very, very gushy and repetitive; every other smile is “wry,” everybody is “attractive.” And the dialog goes on long enough to put an FBI eavesdropper into a coma.

Both stars pull their weight without much heat. Johnson is less beautiful than her father, Don Johnson, at this age, but she does possess his dry sense of comic timing. (Her mother is Melanie Griffith.) In the moments she relaxes out of the straps and gives it as good as she gets it offers a sense of who this character might have been.

Dornan will be familiar to those addicted to the British thriller The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson. He was sexier as a Ted Bundy family man than the dashing deviant Christian Grey.

One reason Dornan may be sexier in The Fall is that it has a thrilling plotline. There is much more going on than his aberrant behavior. The biggest problem with 50 Shades, and the reason it seems to drag, is that it does not really have a B plot. There is Christian, and there is Anastasia, and there is the push-pull of their psychosexual romance. Everything else is window-dressing, from the sketchy portraits of their mothers (the brilliant actresses Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Ehle) to Christian’s backstory of abuse.

As for what happens in Christian’s playroom between consenting adults, after all the cable I’ve watched, it seems tame. It’s not my fantasy. But then again, it might be yours. It certainly touched a G-spot among millions of international female readers.

Thelma Adams, Editor, Film

February 12, 2014

 


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