On surface level, it is quite fun to watch the ridiculous amount of materialism, which was reminiscent of Indecent Proposal. Christian has pencil branded with his name on, which Ana chews symbolically. He whisks her around in an aeroplane and his flat is stylish and minimalist, rather like a catalogue. Even his fetish equipment is nicely presented and ordered- because if it wasn’t, he’d just look seedy. Director Sam Taylor-Wood appears to have some awareness that most people will think the film is a complete joke; Ana’s insistence on organising a real business meeting at Christian’s workplace in order to discuss the contract of their relationship is nicely tongue-in-cheek. Really, the fetish has much more to do with capitalism and corporateness than BDSM and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography complements this- the ‘business meeting’ almost looks romantic.
The film is centred entirely around Ana and Christian’s relationship; there are some minor characters, including Rita Ora as Christian’s sister, in one of the most pointless cameos ever but they are completely underwritten and are largely redundant. The writing is poor; apparently James insisted on fidelity to her ‘masterpiece’ and so Patrick Marber’s screenplay (which would have been much more interesting) was rejected for Kelly Marcel’s bland rendering. The extent to which Christian Grey’s violence and control has been diluted to make it more palatable is obvious. Christian isn’t really a dominant or a psychopath or addict here- he’s just a bastard. Selling Ana’s car behind her back isn’t an example of how powerful and manly he is; it’s just annoying. In one risible scene Ana is hungry so she eats some toast, which Christian bites out of her hand. If Dornan had brought some of the edge he brought to The Fall, the film might have been more erotic, but his performance is very much fairytale prince. Novelist EL James’s interpretation of romantic hero is rather dubious; Christian buys Ana a copy of Tess of The D’Urbervilles and the intended parallel is obvious. Why she would want to compare romantic anti-hero Christian to Alec D’Urberville, who rapes the heroine and causes her tragedy, as if this was a positive thing is beyond me. The writing of the character is probably unsurmountable for any actor.
Dakota Johnson fares better; she commits to the portrayal of Ana as a lip-biting submissive. Ana stands up for herself but Johnson doesn’t do it in an out-of-character way. She almost manages to make sense of the many nonsensical elements of the story.
Anyone hoping for anything faintly erotic will be disappointed unless the mere presence of a sex scene is excitement enough. Certainly Ana is always ludicrously aroused by everything Christian does. The BDSM is displayed with the faux-sauciness of a Marks and Spencer’s advert and is not believable as the behaviour of a disturbed obsessive man. The film keeps telling us that Christian cannot control his urges and that they are caused by his dark traumatic childhood, having been the submissive in a BDSM relationship with his friend’s mother when he was 15 and his birth mother being a heroin addict- yet he makes it clear to Ana that she can opt out of various elements and he tones down his violence towards her. The film is unclear whether the fetish is really a fetish or whether it’s a symptom of Christian’s mental trauma. When the film appears to take the view that it is a fetish that Ana will need to decide whether she can deal with, it is at least an interesting hypothetical dilemma. The moments in which Christian links his sexual deviancy to his psychological issues- and the idea that Ana should accept his emotional baggage and anything that results from that- are a little more uncomfortable. I know this is a romantic drama so there aren’t going to be any moral debates but there is an unavoidable can of worms. The glossy lure of the conventional Hollywood trope of handsome billionaire just about works in this film but with two sequels left to adapt into film, I’m not sure whether this writer/director pair- or indeed any- can overcome the creepy seedy undertones.