Movie Review: 'Fifty Shades of Grey' (2015)

For all the fan fare surrounding its highly publicized source material, the adaptation of E.L. James’ worldwide best-seller offers a sedate spin on a subversive modern romance. “Fifty Shades of Grey” has its good points and its bad ones, somehow offering a film which lands somewhere in between. It’s a movie that knows what it is, what it is not, and what it is trying to be.

It pulls back the reins before ending up as some tawdry melodrama, while pressing the accelerator down enough to have a pulse. It is tasteful, teasing, and a tad too restrained to be considered especially provocative. In an age, in which cable is pushing the envelope every week with explicit material galore, “Fifty Shades of Grey” hardly registers with any pervasive shock value.

The story on surface level is fairly ordinary. A chance meeting brings together the bookish introvert Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), and steely scion Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). From there, the shy girl-next-door is seduced by the possessive millionaire, whose feverish pursuit of her, distracts from his clandestine pastime.

At its core it is simple romance to the hilt. A luxurious lifestyle is held out to a woman who only cares about the man offering it to her. While the man can only offer her the material world because he is too broken to give her his heart. It is actually pretty sweet…until the whips come out.

It is this sensational aspect of the story that launched “Fifty Shades” into the headlines, as talk of its adaptation was as hotly debated as it was anticipated. It is safe to say that even the most ardent outsider of pop culture might have experienced a slight twinge of curiosity when it came to the 2000’s equivalent of “Peyton Place.”

As with most things in movies today, the controversial buzz was mostly unwarranted. For all of the talk, it is a rather tame, and refined chain of sensual portrayal, lacking the erotic suspense of “Eyes Wide Shut,” or the naughty know-how of “Nine ½ Weeks.” While it shares traits with both, it falls short of realizing the brazen abandon either of those films exhibited.

What “Fifty Shades” does achieve to astounding effect is transmitting the look, and feel of its novel counterpart. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson captures the mood of dangerous romance, and jet-setting decadence, beautifully. The cinematography is nothing short of sumptuous, slightly dreamlike, and utterly divine. Silver, crimson, and natural hues alternatively light the film with a majesty that makes it look the part.

Rounding out the sensory experience is a sensational soundtrack, and original score that stays chic without devoting itself entirely to the latest millennial music phase, a move that bodes well for its longevity.

Spring boarding off of all of these attributes is Dakota Johnson, whose performance is a seamless stroll between innocence, and intellect. She is wide-eyed without seeming naïve, and she is relatable, while maintaining a hint of eminence. She captures Ana’s wonderment, and gentle powerbase as an awakened woman with a gravitas that is striking.

Breathing a light and life into a character that could have otherwise remained a vapid blank canvas, upon which the audience could foist their personal vision. She makes you care about Ana as an individual, earning her spot as the heroine protagonist rather than assuming it by default. Her performance is essential to making the movie work, and she wildly transcends her task.

In contrast, Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey with a coldness that is so frigid it comes off sterile. While it is an approach that serves Dornan well on the spellbinding Netflix series "The Fall," it feels exceedingly out of place in the sultry universe of "Fifty Shades." There is no sensuality boiling beneath the surface, or foretaste of romanticism. The well-oiled charm machine of a serial seducer, found whilst turning the pages of the book, is nowhere to be seen in his characterization.

There’s no cocky glance that intimates Christian knows more than a beguiled Ana does. Nor does he seem readily entranced by her, in the least. Grey comes across emotionally aloof, clinical, and distant, instead of internally tormented, and enlivened by Ana’s arousal of an emotional maelstrom that threatens to unravel his carefully calculated existence. Despite Johnson’s best efforts, chemistry between the pair fails to ignite beyond friendly levels.

For those accustomed to the free wielding spectacle of sensuality found in international cinema, “Fifty Shades of Grey” will barely ping the radar. In comparison to the book, it is an especially mild affair. For mainstream Hollywood it is as bold as their willing to venture.

A quick glance at recent releases will reveal a sexuality that is only depicted in an either raunchy (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), or violent (“Gone Girl”) manner. Gone are the days of Zalman King and Adriane Lyne’s spicy scintillations. “Fifty Shades” does offer a slight nod to those erotic maestros’ era of daring, and sexy films; reminding viewers such cinema once existed. Rating: 6.2/10