Let's put aside for a minute the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey started life as a publishing phenomenon that took the world by storm, and take a cold, clear look at Fifty Shades of Grey the film.
There are, to be sure, talented people involved in it, from esteemed actresses like Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden to production designer David Wasco, a regular Tarantino collaborator, or composer Danny Elfman. But you would be very hard-pressed to come out of British artist Sam Taylor-Johnson's sophomore feature understanding what, exactly, other than a paycheck, attracted them to this utterly forgettable, glossy yet artless attempt at a very mildly naughty fairy tale romance.
At its heart, Fifty Shades of Grey is about the seduction of a virginal young woman by an experienced roué and how their improbable, unlikely connection transcends both social origins and status and experience to awaken both lust and romance in both of them. Could be Gigi, could be Pretty Woman, could even be Cinderella: after all, the roué in question is the sexy, handsome and incredibly successful communications millionaire and perfect gentleman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the man who can make all the dreams of part-time-working college student and child of separated parents Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) come true.
What made E. L. James' original novel so successful was its "transgressive" background in the consensual sexual practices of BDSM, adding an unusual twist to its traditional romance structure that seemed to hit a nerve around the world. Much has been made of Ms. James' writing talents (or lack thereof), but there was never any doubt that the massive success of the book meant a film version would be forthcoming.
But there seems to be no "film" here, at least not in what I'd like such a thing to be. Instead, Ms. Taylor-Johnson seems to have agreed to merely illustrate the book's thin plot, soft-core eroticism and highly romanticised implausibilities in a distant, glossy, magazine-spread kind of way. There is no friction nor heart (let alone the so-desired heat) in Fifty Shades of Grey; like in the early 1980s music-video romances of An Officer and a Gentleman or Flashdance, music is used as a "thickening agent" to make up for whatever's not there.
What is there is practically non-existant: the characters are archetypes whose motivations and reasons are mere cyphers, puppets going through the motions designed by a would-be voyeuristic demiurge who doesn't even know enough of the BDSM world she's portraying to make it plausible. There's nothing there for the actors to hold on to; just empty, hollow poses with or without clothes on, and neither Ms. Johnson nor Mr. Dornan, both undoubtedly good-looking, are able to make anything with the very little they're given.
What's more perplexing is the involvement of Ms. Taylor-Johnson in the project - true, her 2009 debut feature Nowhere Boy was an under-achiever, but at least there was something to hold on to in it (a story, relatable characters, performances). For someone who comes from the visual art side to make a film so entirely anonymous, so completely unable to rise above the run-of-the-mill paint-by-numbers shorthand of what passes today for major-studio filmmaking, is inexplicable.
Fifty Shades of Grey isn't a film as much as it is a pure "consumer product", a play-it-safe film version of a best-selling novel. It (thankfully) does not want to be seen as high-art, but it's so indistinct it doesn't even work as anything other than a cash-in made in auto-pilot by talented people - not bad enough to be campy, not good enough to transcend its material.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
USA, Japan 2015
Cast Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson; screenwriter Kelly Marcel; based on the novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (colour, widescreen); composer Danny Elfman; designer David Wasco; costumes Mark Bridges; editors Debra Neil-Fisher, Anne V. Coates and Lisa Gunning; producers Michael de Luca, Ms. James and Dana Brunetti; production companies Universal Pictures, Focus Features and Michael de Luca Productions in association with Dentsu/Fuji Television Network
Screened February 11th 2015, NOS Colombo 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)