The most liberating thing about James Foley’s Fifty Shades Freed, the final part of a trilogy of films adapted from E.L. James’s louche Fifty Shades novels, is that it doesn’t even try to make sense of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) anymore. Where Sam Taylor-Johnson’s spin on Fifty Shades of Grey put the debonair, elusive billionaire businessman on equal footing with the charmingly awkward English student cum hardware store clerk Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), Fifty Shades Darker languished in its continued fidelity to James’s turgid, wheel-spinning plotting, devoting most of its attention to a doomed investigation into Christian’s supposed psyche and blaming his BDSM habit on a prostitute mother and the sexual tutelage of Elena (Kim Basinger), the trilogy’s Mrs. Robinson figure. Ana, meanwhile, was left to continue to dither about whether her lust for commitment was strong enough to submit to a contractually obligated life of ritual role-play.
If Christian Grey was once a perfect specimen of unbridled wealth only marred by sexual predilections that were at once deeply conservative and nonsensically commitment-phobic, in Fifty Shades Freed he’s just a man with an ever-expanding fleet of boats, airplanes, and seaside properties, perennially waiting for his new wife to get home from work. That the dynamics between Ana and Christian have changed fundamentally is evident from the film’s opening sequence, a wedding montage that ends in a—for this franchise—uncommonly economical bit of visual messaging. Though Ana enters the ceremony in a lace dress and says her vows in front of a wall of white roses, she leaves her wedding in an off-white pantsuit.
It’s an assertion of ambition and authority that’s in some ways nominal; as we’re reminded more than once, in Ana’s new role as the fiction editor of a Seattle publishing house, Christian is her “boss’s boss’s boss.” That said, this is very much her film, and Fifty Shades Freed—written, like the last installment, by James’s husband, Niall Leonard—demonstrates a genuine self-awareness of the strange hypocrisies she’s forced to submit to as she attempts to drag Christian out of the Victorian era and pull him into an age of nontraditional gender roles, just as she’s also prodding him to what’s posited as his ultimate relinquishment of power and dominance: fatherhood.
Even the most basic emotions and desires, when broken into their component parts, can become hopelessly confusing and convoluted, and the Fifty Shades films have always operated in this register. In this outing, though, Foley and Leonard plow through various newlywed dilemmas with a blithe confidence that’s as winning as it is wholly unearned. Christian’s tedious, brooding defensiveness is treated like the punchline it is, and Ana’s expressions of will are persistent and righteous, however minor her aims. When Christian discovers that Ana is still using her given surname at work, Ana turns the tables on him, demanding to know whether he’d ever change his name for her. After he preposterously claims he would, she becomes Anastasia Grey at work. Whose victory is this, anyway? Foley’s film suggests that any semblance of capitulation on Christian’s part is a win for Ana and women at large, even if that momentary triumph leads to a further sacrifice of Ana’s independence.
This pattern repeats a handful of other times, and though the series resolves itself in a typically traditionalist fashion, Fifty Shades Freed solves many of the franchise’s problems in its simple yet abiding interest in Ana’s pleasure. Foley’s impulsive cuts to and from the so-called “Red Room” and shower scenes are as numerous as ever, but now that Christian and Ana are married, their romance is divorced from any backward obligation to test Ana’s mettle. All of that helplessly softcore BDSM makes a lot more sense in this context, as does Ana’s evident joy in taking part in it. Dornan, for his part, remains walled off from any sense of caring or compassion (“I had a dream last night, that you were dead,” Christian drones to Ana at one point), but the film continues to offer him redemptively silly moments at grand pianos.
Johnson, meanwhile, has stripped Ana of all worry and insecurity, and the results are delightful, from an office scene where she assertively orders a book’s font to be “two points larger for the hard copy” to a romp in the kitchen of an Aspen vacation home that slyly responds to accusations of “vanilla” lovemaking elsewhere in the film series. Ana remains surrounded by terrible men, not only Christian but also ex-boss-turned-hacker-turned-home-invader Jack Hyde (a hilariously bloodshot Eric Johnson), who provides fitful moments of action and suspense to the narrative in the gaps between lavish vacations, petty arguments, and apology fucks. Hyde inevitably takes over the film’s mercifully brief final act, threatening the lives of both Ana and Christian’s sister, Mia (noted wholebrity Rita Ora, who also appears on the film’s so-bland-it’s-oppressive soundtrack).
It should be noted that the only reason Hyde can threaten anyone is because Christian and his squad of private security forces failed to take note of Hyde’s very public bail hearing. This franchise has never been good at plotting—it seems obvious that scenes involving Basinger and a highly billed Jennifer Ehle (who plays Ana’s mother, Carla), have been cut here—and this installment’s many oversights are evidence of the filmmakers’ belated recognition of both Johnson’s sly appeal and the folly of the tortured man of privilege who can only be healed by a good woman. And though Christian’s pride and apparently misplaced sense of power are the cause of all of Fifty Shades Freed’s goofy narrative curlicues, the film ends with a few earnest appeals to his character. “You were given a life with advantages, but look at what you made with it,” Ana declares without a glint of irony, inviting the audience to laugh ruthlessly at his absurdity, and in some awe at her deft power play.