When a wounded Christian Grey tries to entice a cautious Ana Steele back into his life, she demands a new arrangement before she will give him another chance. As the two begin to build trust and find stability, shadowy figures from Christian’s past start to circle the couple, determined to destroy their hopes for a future together.
Having read the execrable ‘erotic’ S&M novel by E.L James on which it was based, I was pleasantly surprised by the sophistication and humour of the film Fifty Shades of Grey, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and written by Kelly Marcel. I was game for the sequel. But Fifty Shades Darker, written and directed by men this time (Niall Leonard, husband to E.L James, wrote the script, while James Foley directs), is a crude but coy disappointment. It’s a film groaning with wooden dialogue, senseless plot developments and unsexy sex scenes – the kind that will have you wondering how many times poor Dakota Johnson had to throw back her head and arch her back in simulated pleasure. She’s still the best thing in the film, bringing some grace and humanity to the cardboard character of Anastasia Steele, a young Seattle ingénue in love with an emotionally damaged billionaire bad boy, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).
Fifty Shades Darker begins with Anastasia receiving an extravagant bunch of white roses, and a note wishing her well on her first day at work as a publishing assistant. She goes to throw the flowers in the bin, but hesitates. They’re from Christian, the man she broke up with at the first film’s conclusion, after he’d beaten her red and raw, and she’d decided she couldn’t handle his sadism. But she’s still in love with him. But he’s still a sadist. So what will they do?
‘I don’t do romance,’ Christian declared in the first film. Anastasia, a virgin brought up on Bronte and Austin, very much needed romance. The dance between the two of them as they negotiated this conflict provided the tension that fueled that story. But here, Christian capitulates to romance almost immediately – diamonds, fireworks and flowers galore, not to mention much deep kissing and missionary-position sex, with only a sprinkling of handcuffs when Anastasia consents. He even ‘opens up’ about his crack-addict mother dying of an overdose when he was a child – a terse confession Anastasia thanks him for as though she’s been handed the keys to his heart. In turn, she capitulates almost entirely to Christian’s controlling, and frankly stalkerish, ways – his interference in her work life (he buys the company and forbids her from taking a work trip to New York), her wardrobe (he buys her clothes and hires a hairstylist) and her finances (depositing money in her bank account against her wishes). It’s disturbing to see the script’s wan attempts to convince us this is a mutual power relationship.
Having elided the central and very interesting question of this unequal relationship, the film then throws multiple external threats into the mix, as if it knows the couple itself is now boring. There’s Ana’s sexually harassing boss (Eric Johnson), Christian’s deranged gun-toting ex-girlfriend (Bella Heathcote), and his abusive first love, the Mrs Robinson character who first turned him on to whips and chains (Kim Basinger). None of these villains is ever given enough time or dialogue to be interesting or really threatening, and even a climactic helicopter crash is handled with the kind of sparse anti-climactic coverage a low-budget TV soap might attempt.
Special mention must go to the truly awful use of music in Fifty Shades Darker. Rarely has a film signposted so baldly what it wants us to know and feel by the use of popular songs. Low points include the use of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ during a scene where Christian fingers Ana in a crowded lift, and ‘I don’t wanna live forever’ by Zayn and Taylor Swift as the couple steers a yacht over sparkling water. There’s also the laughable choreography of Christian’s pelvic thrusts to music that stops and starts as he does.
It’s easy to make fun of the genre of mainstream erotic romances aimed at women – as if trying to make them is an innately laughable proposition. Instead, a film as bad as Fifty Shades Darker should prompt the question of what a good erotic romance might look like. Without declaring the first film a masterpiece, it’s possible to say a good film would be more like that. I’m thinking of an image that lingers: of Anastasia being undressed by Christian, and of the camera and lighting conspiring to create a texture that’s real but still beautiful. Fine hairs on the skin, goosebumps and plain cotton underwear, of the kind a real life university virgin might be wearing under her jeans. The shiver of flesh when it’s touched for the first time. The look in the eyes that’s a question and an answer. The thrilling risk of intimacy of all kinds. There’s none of that here.
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