A laborious love for fans and critics alike, director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s steamy adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey is like an elaborate, more often awkward, game of Operation on the female anatomy. Based on EL James’s pale imitation of erotica, the bawdy affair may be missing the palpable chemistry of a memorable romance, but soft-core hotness satirises the affections of the traditional lovers quarrel. Fifty Shades of Grey finds fame and glamour in the mockery of sexual perversion. The film is envisioned as a clumsy teenage fantasy, riled by a series of whippy sex scenes. It struggles to eschew a cutesy, harmless charm, and yet Fifty Shades is a luxuriously long, coy, and playful tease.
The saucy foray charts the tale of the modestly foxy Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), the unspooling of her toe-curling innocence and her gradual sexual blossoming. A kismet twist of fate introduces the hopelessly timid Anastasia to Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a darkly dapper entrepreneur. He resides in the Seattle skyline gazing almost stoically at the sprawling urban mess below his neo-Tony Stark Tower high rise, Grey House. He models fine suits as befitting Dornan’s model-turned-actor status and even finer manners; his politeness and confident swagger often peaks through his chiselled exterior. In a delicious reveal, Christian’s neat façade buckles as his sexual perversities (or pleasures… even he does not seem to know which) bubble to the surface. His tender, tormented self comes to the fore after falling under a dream-like spell for the young, pretty romantic, Anastasia.
Taylor-Johnson’s fanciful and mischievous romp thrives on the promised spectacle of hardcore sex. Its embellished glam makes for easy watching. Christian’s chamber of secrets - a locked door in a maze of otherwise empty rooms and winding staircases – is a tomb of pleasurable delights. Fifty Shades’ wicked sexuality is as visually playful as it is stimulating. Suspension bondage echoes Cirque du Soleil acts, with complimentary blindfolds and nine-tailed whips. Dakota Johnson described the sex scenes as kinky “acrobatics” in an interview for The Today Show.
Whilst it can be a persuasively naughty carnal flick, enlivened by sly innuendos and Christian’s frequent flirtations with Anastasia and the audience, the film gets frustratingly confused between punishment as a means of pleasure and pleasure as a form of punishment. For all its flaunty dazzle, it conjures up a surprisingly mute sexual fantasy, and perhaps its only crime is its lacklustre imagination. The film should amount to more than achromatic gloominess, as Fifty Shades oddly fixates on other pleasures of life, with a hefty portion of time spent ogling slick, silvery sports cars, streamlined gliders and helicopter tours. The soundscape by comparison is notably enriched by the soothing vocals of Beyoncé and crew, as well as Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, imbuing the film with the canny child-like wonder of fantasy fiction creating an alluring quality that makes Fifty Shades seem like prettified porno-chic on a big budget.
The source novel, a quasi-Twilight counterfeit that shares in teen fiction’s ear for romance, is mildly risqué material that centres on the perverse pleasures and practices of BDSM. It offers a flavour of sex that is meant to be more adventurous than vanilla. Johnson’s vision erotises sex culture as something more daring and altogether desirable than cheap porn. For her, sex can at once be passionate and rough; the characters bond spiritually and physically, which makes the sex all the more curious and intense. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography positions an almost perverted gaze upon Anastasia’s body. His camera drools over the various sex scenes, eyeing Christian as he toggles Anastasia’s perky breasts, or as he rolls a chilled shard of ice across her stomach with his lips. The film is almost surgical in navigating her body and captures a snapshot of Anastasia’s pleasure as she wildly enters the throes of an interstellar orgasm.
Critics may be feeling the pain of EL James’ imagined pleasures and the film can be frustratingly tame at times - even its lead described the sex as “technical” on The Today Show, in spite of the acrobatics. Regardless, Taylor-Johnson offers up a slab of breezy, sexual euphoria equivalent to a dirtied rendition of Lady and the Tramp (1955), but more enthusiastically driven by silky neckties and prime real estate. In its playful flirtation with its fans, cynics and the BDSM community alike, the film need not be taken too seriously. It is the well-endowed romp erotic cinema deserves.