A college graduate and literary student, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), begins a passionate erotic relationship with a young, handsome, but troubled billionaire, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).

Based on the worldwide best-selling novel by E.L. James.

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The movie adaptation of E L James’ ‘clit-lit’ S&M phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey is nowhere near as bad as it could have been. That’s no small thing to say when the source material dealt more blows to the English language than to its willing protagonist.

It could have been dire.

By all accounts it wasn’t an easy adaptation: James supposedly made the most of the “unprecedented” control she was granted by Universal, and naturally rode roughshod over the production. She and director Sam Taylor-Johnson supposedly clashed – a lot – over how hot the sex ought to be, and on whether said prim protagonist, Anastasia Steele, would/should be seen to utter her safeword.  It makes good page fodder in the lead-up to a movie’s release, but whatever. It’s out now, and what’s more, it’s not terrible.

The setup itself is the hoary stuff of bodice-rippers, but Taylor-Johnson (and screenwriter Kelly Marcel) injects a welcome, knowing humour into the mutual makeover story of the bookish ingénue Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), and the sleek billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) who wants to take her into his locked room of red leather and fetish gear where he lets his freak flag fly.

"It could have been dire."

The film earns a laugh when Christian realises he’s hit the proverbial jackpot with the dainty, quivering virgin, whose book smarts and lack of life experience make her seem like putty in his hands. Of course, she rather thinks the same, thanks very much, of landing a brooding bazillionaire who declares that he wants to “fuck [her] into the middle of next week”. But first, these two star-crossed lovers have a lot more to negotiate than just the path to true love, and the film is its liveliest when it deals in the dramatic tension over whether Ana will agree to be bound by the terms of Christian’s carefully prepared dominant/submissive contract. 

Taylor-Johnson knows damn well what everyone’s paying their hard-earned to see, of course, and she teases out the anticipation over ‘those’ scenes for as long as Ana holds out from signing on the dotted line. Thus, the first two acts are peppered with winking dialogue and a protracted dance over contractual negotiations that lets the expectations of the kinky stuff build. It’s a good hour into the film before we get a gander at the playroom, and even longer before “the flogger” gets put through its paces. (In a new application of Chekhov’s gun theory.)

How you feel about those scenes will naturally depend on where you sit on the sexual spectrum. Even in 2015 it’s still pretty rare to see a bit of slap and tickle with straps on the big screen (unless you’re Lars Von Trier)  – but this is MA15+ territory, so it all stays on the nice side of naughty. We barely scratch the surface of the red room; ditto Johnson’s alabaster behind. And yes, in keeping with prevailing double standards, the nudity is ridiculously one-sided; the camera lingers over the writhing Johnson as she arches her back, bites her lips and moans on cue, but camera pans are cut short abruptly whenever they travel south and tilt suggestively towards Dornan’s penis.

Of course, this means that anyone who considers themselves even remotely GGG will find this all rather tame. (At the risk of oversharing, I’m confident I’m not the only one to mutter an underwhelmed Is that it? about what transpires when Ana demands that Grey “do his worst”).  The raunchiest bits are played for laughs in a quick blink-and-you’ll miss it search results sequence, when Ana makes some rudimentary online investigations into what Christian means by “submission”.  

Johnson is the better of the two leads, and her natural performance gives cues of her character’s agency in her own desire, which should assuage anyone at risk of getting their Cottontails in a twist about the power balance.  Dornan suffers mostly from having less to do. He plays the taciturn industrialist convincingly, but understandably seems embarrassed uttering some of the dodgier lines. The film loses its footing when it has him unnecessarily confide aspects of his backstory as a way to ‘explain’ the origins of his kinks. It seems out of place in this film, put there to placate conservative audiences, but I suspect it hints at the shame spiral to come in one of the inevitable sequels. 

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