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On Fifty Shades of Grey, and great big choppers

February 12th, 2015

There’s a scene, about half an hour into Fifty Shades of Grey, in which Christian Grey takes Ana Steele for a ride in his helicopter. Setting aside the obvious chopper gags for a second, the scene is full of basic aviation-based mistakes — helicopter pilots fly from the right seat, not the left; callsigns in the US are four or five characters long, not six; “your flight plan is cleared” has no meaning. This isn’t a scene about flying a helicopter; it’s a scene about what the filmmakers imagine flying a helicopter is like.

Christian Grey's chopper — my, it's a big one. (Fifty Shades of Grey)

Christian Grey’s chopper — my, it’s a big one. (From Fifty Shades of Grey)

And that, then, is the film in microcosm. The entire of Fifty Shades of Grey is how director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel, and indeed E.L. James, who originated this whole sorry little mess, imagine people talk, what they imagine a dominant-submissive relationships looks like, what BDSM sex is like. In trying to make a film about things they clearly have no understanding of, they’ve managed to make one of the funniest films of the year.

Well, that’s true of the first half, at least, before the film just gets boring. The audience at last night’s media screening in Auckland, the best-attended press showing I’ve been to, laughed their way almost continously through the first hour of the film, and through much of the rest. At first, I wasn’t sure if they were laughing with the film, or at it. If they were finding wit in the cliché-ridden dialogue, or sophistication and humour in the mechanical delivery, then I must have been missing something; but when Christian sat at his piano for a swift post-deflowering tinkle, the laughter was more cynical than sympathetic. Fifty Shades of Grey,  although I’m sure its creators didn’t intend this to be the case, is bloody funny.

Which is good, because it saves the film from being almost completely without merit. Dakota Johnson is the nearest thing the film has to acting talent; she does her best with plodding dialogue, which, even stripped of the utterly absurd “my inner goddess” bollocks of the source material, is simply flat and dull. She lacks range, though — she simpers and whimpers her way through the majority of the scenes which feature both Ana and Christian, and she demonstrates just how difficult playing drunk effectively is. Jamie Dornan does little with Christian Grey, but it’s not entirely his fault. The character is woefully underwritten — “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” he declares toward the end of the film, but we don’t see more than one or two of them. James’ characters are vehicles to drive her own S&M fantasies, and Marcel does little to flesh them out any further; by the time Grey offers Ana a few broad-strokes nuggets of information about his background, we simply don’t care.

And not caring is the worst thing an audience can be allowed to do. But there is so very little in Fifty Shades of Grey, from the characters to the flimsy-almost-to-the-point-of-nonexistence story arc, to encourage its viewers to care. When, as Christian was trying to seduce Ana for the first time, a woman two seats down from me told her friend “Oh my god, this is so funny,” it was clear that last night’s audience, at least, had totally failed to engage with the characters they were watching. Even as the musical cues from Danny Elfman’s score told us that something significant, something meaningful and poignant, was happening onscreen, the audience were giggling. This is, simply, a boring and badly-made film. It’s not bad enough to be good — Showgirls, which remains the gold standard for “so bad it’s brilliant,” was overegged and fun, but Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t even have the courage to be remarkable in its badness. It’s just dull. Had it managed to be actually bad, I’d have warmed to it — monumentally shite is entertaining, but tedious is just tedious.

What makes this harder to bear is the fact that — twice, just twice — there are glimpses of a much, much better film. In the first, Christian wants Ana to sign a statement of consent to his little hobbies, and they meet in the boardroom of his ill-defined company to thrash out the details. For the very first time, I believed that Sam Taylor-Johnson was capable of more than simply by-the-numbers filmmaking. The setting, the lighting, the colour palette, the costumes — if I were being generous, and there was bugger all else on display last night that really encouraged me to be at all generous, I’d possibly suggest hints of Peter Greenaway in the one scene where the acting and the script manage to rise above the clankingly shite. As Ana works through a list of activities she will or won’t allow, we are teased with hints of an entirely better film, one full of arch dialogue and camp delivery, a film I’d likely enjoy much more than I enjoyed this one, which instead sees the two characters talking at each other, Dornan’s Christian reciting most of his lines in an urgent monotone. Johnson finds more depth as she contemplates fisting — anal and vaginal both — and genital clamping than ever she does when James, Marcel and Taylor-Johnson have her trying to analyse Grey. But then the scene ends, and we’re left wondering if the grey palette of many of the outdoor scenes around Vancouver, playing Seattle better than Dornan or Johnson play their characters, is a conscious choice of the director or just a happy accident. I’m thinking it’s likely the latter.

The second glimpse comes, appropriately, when Ana finally enters Christian’s playroom. The first of three S&M scenes, and by far the best three or four minutes in the entire film, this sequence is intriguingly edited, sharply directed, an honestly well-made piece of cinema. As a piece of soft-core porn it’s very restrained: Ana’s naked, we see her chained up, we watch Christian use a riding crop on her, and that’s all just fine and suitable for a grown-up film, but as she writhes and thrashes around, her knee rises up just enough to prevent us seeing anything truly naughty. It’s an oddly coy affectation in a film that, presumably, intends to be daring and bold and sexual. But then it’s over. When they return to the dungeon later, there’s little new to see, and Taylor-Johnson simply rehashes the first scene, Johnson sounding less like a woman in the throes of ecstasy and more like Kenneth Williams. And when he actually hurts her, when he uses his belt on her, it feels nasty, squalid, wrong. It’s not even shocking — it’s just ugly.

Fifty Shades of Grey will, of course, make absurd amounts of money at the box office. At last night’s screening, two days before the film opens in New Zealand, I heard that it had sold 20,000 tickets already; bookings to see it on Valentine’s Day evening are, it appears, as hard to find as moments of interest in the film itself. The film ends as the first book in James’ trilogy does; there will, of course, be two more films. I hope, fool that I am, that they might be better than this one. Oh, dear Lord, they could barely be worse.

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