Ironically, the scene in Fifty Shades of Grey that typifies the film’s seesawing blend of bondage and freedom is entirely sexless. After shuffling from Seattle to Savannah to scoop up Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), the overwhelmed girlfriend he’s essentially stalking, studly gazillionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) takes her for a morning ride in a glider. The delicate aircraft is at first tethered to a traditional plane that takes it aloft, and then it’s released to fly freely, soaring and spinning while floating on air. It’s both telling and deliberate that these two characters take this ride together. The glider proves a reflection of their intertwined, yet individual, struggles: She’s a strong-willed woman as enraptured by Christian as she is wary of his potentially enslaving demands; he’s a serial sadist (or “dominant”) who’s set in his ways, but subconsciously pleading for someone to break his compulsion. Adapted from a slice of glorified fan-fiction you might have heard of, Fifty Shades of Grey is at its most interesting when it pauses to explore a balance of power, wherein sex and gender roles relate to a broader survey of boundaries and choices.
That said, the movie doesn’t often have time for all this, and while some of its fleshier scenes—of which there are many—may urge you and your theater date to get a room, its ick factor is usually too prevalent to overlook. For anyone who cares a lick about how female agency is depicted in media, the first act is a rather grueling endurance test, and that’s before a single whip, flogger, or silver tie is put to use. Anastasia is a smart yet impressionable college senior, who, after interviewing Christian for her school paper, becomes drunkenly enthralled with his stoic, storied allure. When he shows up at her humble, convenient workplace (a hardware store), and buys tape, rope, and cable ties, she nearly faints at his assertion that he won’t need coveralls to protect his clothes, because his DIY activities may not require clothes at all. When she’s summoned to take a spin in his private helicopter, at which point director Sam Taylor-Johnson takes pains to show Christian firmly belting Anastasia to her seat, the lyrics of Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” are painfully accentuated: “I’ll let you set the pace/’Cause I’m not thinking straight.” And when Anastasia reveals to Christian that she’s not only uneasy, but a virgin, his reaction, however intended to be in step with his actively unfeeling character, runs just short of spine-chilling. Rather than thinking for a second that this girl might not be appropriate as his next BDSM conquest, he promptly proceeds to “rectify the situation.” In the morning, she dutifully makes him pancakes.
What’s most unsettling is that this story’s fantasy of female submission, however healthy when one factors in people’s specific desires and mutual consent (which, to be fair, plays a major role in the narrative), has been ravenously consumed worldwide by women, too many of whom have presumably been bewitched by the thought of a chiseled drink of water controlling their minds and bodies. To the film’s credit, Anastasia eventually exerts some of her own authority when handed a contract detailing the terms of being Christian’s “submissive,” a comprehensive document that covers everything from a “prescribed diet” and limited alcohol intake to anal and vaginal fisting (Anastasia barks a determined “no” to the latter two activities). But just as quickly as Anastasia opts to give Christian the boot after doing her “research” (on a laptop that, along with a new car, is one of Christian’s lavish gifts), she surrenders again when he creepily breaks into her home, allowing him to tie her to a bedrail, drag ice across her nipples, and zealously take her from behind, all to the lust-struck tune of Beyoncé’s “Haunted.” And later, after genuine, dreaded feelings come into the mix, and Christian’s deep-seated motives are half-assedly introduced (“I’m 50 shades of fucked up”), Anastasia requests that she be “punished” to the fullest extent, her hollow reasoning being that it’s the only way she’ll understand.
Admittedly, all of this would be far more digestible if Dornan had even a scintilla of the talent or conviction of his co-star. A true discovery, Johnson is perfectly cast as a woman whose plain-Jane awkwardness pairs seamlessly with her sexual awakening, and for every uncertain lower-lip bite that recalls Kristen Stewart’s Bella Swan angst, there’s nuanced evidence of a legit actress burrowing deep in the skin of her character (a standout scene sees Anastasia take a phone call from her mom, and let sudden tears slip while processing just how alien her new relationship’s circumstances would seem to an outsider). Dornan, on the other hand, takes cold aloofness to a woeful, wooden low, making Richard Gere’s quasi-comparable Edward from Pretty Woman seem as fleshed out as Hamlet. The Irish model turned actor, who struggles with his American accent, somehow manages to render his sculpted beauty moot, which throws a major wrench in the gears for a film dependent on eroticism. All red flags, power shifts, and troubling cultural commentaries considered, it would at least be helpful if the dreamboat of so many vicariously pleasured readers had palpable appeal.