If Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey amounted to little more than an aborted, two-hour contract negotiation, it managed to get there with a notion of wit and luxury, taking its responsibilities as a flukishly iconic bit of intellectual property seriously. The filmmakers convinced Beyoncé to transform “Crazy in Love” into a slow-jam dirge, crafted a visual essay on the state of luxury branding (glider planes, tie drawers), and somehow made space for a genuinely offbeat comic turn by Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele, the virginal English major who becomes suddenly besotted with the tortured billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, whose stiffness occasionally served his character’s warped spin on Victorian chivalry).
E.L. James’s franchise makes up for its stunning lack of narrative scaffolding by unfurling in the silly and addictive manner of a proto-novel by Samuel Richardson: Neither the virtuous woman nor her sadistic captor exhibit any emotional attention span, but they reliably alternate between currents of guarded/lustful and territorial/forgiving every few minutes. Such serial pleasures can sustain a set of books, but an endlessly repeating set of rephrased, insipid debates quickly grows tiresome on film. Fifty Shades of Grey worked around this dilemma with self-aware set pieces (a boardroom contract debate lit like a blazing sunset, the softcore hardcore kink of the “red room of pain”), but director James Foley’s sequel founders in its utter lack of stakes.
Fifty Shades Darker takes the Dark Knight approach to franchise maintenance, taking pains to assure you that its protagonists are serious about their passions. Despite an unexplained, enhanced security presence around his hulked-up, billion-dollar frame, Christian is single-mindedly fixated on Ana. He’s days-of-stubble sad, playing Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” through his Sonos and mulling over an attempt at a more conventional romance. The bookworm, meanwhile, has a hunky new boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), and a gig reading manuscripts at an independent press in Seattle. Ana is reluctant to shirk her newfound professional duties to give BDSM another go (“Christian, you know I love working,” she says), but a few opulent gifts—including, bafflingly, another Mac laptop—and promises of “vanilla” lovemaking are enough to get her hormones raging.
Foley is known for his enjoyably lurid thrillers, and fans of his Mark Wahlberg/Reese Witherspoon vehicle Fear may be pleased to know that the director still has a few finger-bang scenes up his sleeve, but the sex in Fifty Shades Darker is its biggest disappointment. Gone are the first film’s Denis-lite abstract shots of knotted limbs and bulging muscles and the GIFable, metronomic regularity of Dornan pulling off a T-shirt; these motifs are broadly replaced by a series of quick-and-dirty, pants-dropping missionary sessions, a scant smattering of what Ana calls “kinky fuckery,” and a few utterances of the word “cum.” The film is similarly brusque in its lapses of continuity: Ana makes a show of putting on lavish undergarments that have vanished when Christian ravages her moments later, floor-length windows alternate willy-nilly between Puget Sound seascapes and glimpses of the Space Needle.
What little of substance transpires in Fifty Shades Darker orbits around Christian’s past: his crackhead prostitute mother, a former sub (Bella Heathcote) who can’t relinquish her attachment, and Kim Basinger’s Elena, the “Mrs. Robinson” who inculcated Christian into bondage as a child. Just as the film’s women are defined by their inexplicable devotion to Christian, its men are all defined by habits of rapey dominance. It’s inevitable that the franchise will continue to double down on its kinky prudishness, as the screenplay—by Niall Leonard, E.L. James’s husband—leaves heaps of sloppy and unmotivated hints that Christian will eventually be excused from reforming himself and will instead have to defend Ana’s honor and security.
All of this is unsurprising, but one hopes the series will find a way to reinvigorate its heroine, whose airy skepticism has given way to a demure brand of submission. This is one of many missed opportunities to do anything bold or progressive with Fifty Shades Darker, a film in which Christian Grey owns a pommel horse and gives no indication that he wants to have sex on it.