Ford On Film

Chronicles of a silver screen addict

Hatewatch #4: Fifty Shades of Grey (Like porn but with worse acting)

In this regular feature, I am travailing through the world of bad films to find hidden gems, terrible disappointments, and the worst of the worst. Films are rated on a scale of: ‘Good’, ‘Not Bad’, ‘So Bad It’s Good’, ‘Bad’, ‘Boring’, and ‘THE FUCKING WORST’.

Obsessed with the Twilight series of books and films, British author E.L. James sat down in 2009 and began to write fan fiction under the sophisticated pen name of “Snowqueens Icedragon”. Her graphic sexual stories about Edward and Bella were considered too lewd for the Twilight fan club, so James published the stories on her own website. Renaming Edward and Bella to Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, she told the story of a young woman introduced to BDSM by a deranged billionaire, and in the process created a genuine pop culture phenomenon.

It’s hard to comprehend how popular the Fifty Shades trilogy became.  Aimed at housewives too prudish for porn, James’ brand of “Mommy porn” sold over 120 million copies worldwide, leading to E.L. James being listed as one of the most influential people of 2013 by Times Magazine. The woman who admitted she wrote Twilight fan fiction during her mid-life crisis was now one of the best-selling authors of all time, earning close to $100 million from her flimsy brand of filth. $5 million of that money came from Universal Pictures, who quickly scooped up the film rights.

However, Fifty Shades of Grey was not without its detractors. Most critics seemed baffled it had been published in the first place. Salmon Rushdie, a controversial writer in his own right, said he’d “never read anything so badly written”. The Huffington Post were harsher, calling the whole affair “a sad joke”. Even more outraged were the BDSM community, criticising the books for being ignorant of genuine BDSM practice, and claiming Grey and Steele’s relationship looked more like abuse than romance.

Despite all the negativity, Fifty Shades of Grey still became one of the fastest-selling books of all time, and it was inevitable that a Hollywood adaptation was coming. Directed by indie veteran Sam-Taylor Johnson and starring the relatively unknown Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey was a predictably huge hit, making $600 million at the box office. However, the critical reaction was overwhelmingly poor and the difficult production suggested not everybody was happy working on the film. Dornan recounted how uncomfortable he felt throughout filming. Johnson described how tense the sex scenes were on set. Most tellingly of all, Taylor-Johnson declined to direct the next two films in the trilogy.

Poorly written erotica that started as fan fiction, an unhappy director who quickly jumped ship, and two uncomfortable leading actors. How bad could Fifty Shades of Grey be?

The first thing I noticed when watching the film was how incredibly good looking it is. From gliding helicopter shots to Lynchian bedroom scenes, this is easily the slickest production I’ve covered for Hatewatch, and a brilliant effort from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. If I were rating Fifty Shades… on production values alone, I’d be ecstatic. Sadly, I had to watch the rest of the film.

English Lit student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) opens the film heading out to interview reclusive billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She enters his office, they banter, they flirt; clearly we’re meant to think there’s a spark. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come across because Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson have less-than-zero screen chemistry.

This is mostly due to Dornan’s dreadful performance. There are only three reasons for Dornan being so stiff and awkward: 1. He was secretly auditioning for the role of C3PO and didn’t tell anybody 2. He’s a replicant who’s managed to avoid being tracked down by Rick Deckard or 3. He really doesn’t like being Christian Grey. I’m going with option 3. His dialogue is terrible, his delivery worse, and his character is less Casanova, more potential kidnapper. I’m a fan of Dornan, so it was tough watching him be so badly miscast.

Dakota Johnson fares a little better. Taylor-Johnson makes a wise change from the book by making Anastasia Steele (one of the worst character names in the history of publication) feistier, standing up for herself and bantering with Christian. Johnson isn’t great but she occasionally musters some kind of energy.

Fifty Shades 1

After the dreadful interview scene, we get some interminably dull scenes of Anastasia going about her life, including a scene where she goes home and talks to her Mum who looks at most ten years older than her. Bad casting, or dark implications about the Steele family? If you’re hoping for a Showgirls-style trashy sex film or a steamy romance, avoid this film, as Fifty Shades… is the dullest film about BDSM you could possibly make. The dialogue should sizzle but instead fizzles, the chemistry is non-existent, and the first hour is a romance in which a man stalks a woman and controls her life.

Christian Grey is apparently meant to be charming, so why does Dornan plays him like a strangler? Why does Taylor-Johnson shoot Grey flirting with Steele like a horror film? Anastasia works in a hardware shop, where Christian comes in to establish he knows where she works, before revelling in his rapey-ness by purchasing ropes and duct tape. “You are such a serial killer” giggles Steele, unaware that her head will likely end up in his fridge. As a horror, it’s effective, but as a romance, it’s off-putting stuff. Rather than the usual Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, we get Christian Grey, the Manic Sexy Nightmare Boy.

Given most of the film takes place in apartments and bedrooms, I was astounded to learn the budget was $40 million. That was, until I got to the scene where Christian picks up Anastasia in his helicopter (he’s a pilot because this is fan fiction; he might as well be Superman) and flies her around to the bland mewling of Ellie Goulding. Perhaps the worst part of the film is the dire soundtrack of generic autotuned pop, all of which had me pining for the silent era, where the only music was some comically jaunty piano.

Fifty Shades 2

After an eternity, we get to the scenes repressed Mums everywhere were waiting for; (possibly abusive) kinky sex. Sadly, even this turns out to be a washout. There’s only so much unrealistic, uncomfortable sex you can watch before you just want to get on with the rest of the film. At a punishing 125 minutes, Fifty Shades… is incredibly overlong, and the sex scenes probably add an unnecessary 20 minutes. Honestly, Dakota Johnson got her boobs out so often, I became numb to them after a few minutes. Fifty Shades of Grey makes nudity boring. Why am I watching this again?

It’s difficult to discuss most of the film because absolutely nothing happens. Every scene feels the same, the performances don’t get better, and the sex doesn’t get sexier. I was losing the will to live with each passing minute, praying for the end to come like an evangelist waiting to be raptured.

Fifty Shades 3

After spending a thousand years (or an hour, whatever) pressuring Anastasia to sign a contract that makes her his live-in slave, Anastasia tests out the lifestyle by allowing him to whip seven shades of shit out of her. It seemed odd to make a film about erotic sex and then shoot the pivotal act like 12 Years A Slave. Anastasia is miffed about the consensual sex act they just shared and walks out the door. How will they ever make up? What can Christian do to win Anastasia’s love?

Nothing. Roll credits.

What the fuck?

Fifty Shades of Grey has an unsatisfying, shamelessly sequal-baiting ending. Rather than concluding this dross, it suddenly stops, hoping we’ll return to find out what happens in the sequel (Fifty Shades Blander, presumably). No, E.L. James. No, Universal Pictures. Give us a finished product, not a two-hour advert.

After the indifferent but inoffensive first hour, the second hour of Fifty Shades of Grey is so painfully boring and unsexy, I was angry at having to watch it. While the success of the Fifty Shades trilogy is impressive and E.L. James should be lauded for her marketing skills, she should also be shamed for writing such a shoddy bit of tat. As the writer of this adaptation, she could have redeemed her pitiful books but instead she refused to change anything that made her trilogy so flimsy; in the process, James, along with Taylor-Johnson and her two leading actors, have created one of the dullest screen couples in years.

Despite the excellent production values and cinematography, Fifty Shades of Grey is too awkward and uncomfortable to be sexy, romantic, or watchable for most of its runtime. At over two hours, Fifty Shades of Grey is so dull it hurts, and not even endless nudity can make it seem interesting. At least porn is done after an hour.

Final Verdict: BORING.

 

NEXT TIME ON HATEWATCH: Absolutely Anything

 

By Harry J. Ford

 

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