Fifty Shades the film: just how racy is it?

Feb 12, 2015

Saddleries across Australia apparently noticed an upsurge in sales of riding crops when the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon hit, while UK emergency services reported an increase in calls about handcuff “situations”.

British author EL James’ erotic trilogy had, it seemed, sparked mainstream interest in the supposedly taboo practices of bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism.

The books were also deridingly labelled “mummy porn” and mocked by many – including those who hadn’t read them – for the poor writing. (Newsflash: ladies don’t read Fifty Shades seeking literary enlightenment.)

And now, opening today, is the much-anticipated movie, the first official trailer for which attracted more than 200 million views on YouTube.

Seeing the film wasn’t at the top of my to-do list – but then a slightly sinister-looking invitation to the Adelaide premiere landed in my inbox with the insistent exhortation: MR. GREY WILL SEE YOU NOW.

It seemed rude to stand him up for My Kitchen Rules.

Besides, at least I’ve read the book (purely for research purposes), and who could resist the irony of a lesbian reviewing one of the most-talked-about het-sex flicks since 9 ½ Weeks? (Interestingly, Fifty Shades director Sam Taylor-Johnson reportedly cites 9 ½ Weeks and lesbian erotic drama Blue is the Warmest Colour as inspirations for this film.)

In case you’ve been living under a rock (or in a dungeon), the Fifty Shades of Grey story centres on the sexual liaisons between young literature student Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson, daughter of actress Melanie Griffiths and actor Don Johnson) and controlling wealthy entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who has a penchant for bondage and discipline.

Think Mills & Boon with whips. It’s a classic nice-girl-seduced-by-haunted-bad-boy story (with whips). She wants romance, he want sex (with whips).

“I don’t do romance,” says Mr 50 Shades of F***ed Up.

“My tastes are very … singular.”

I could extend the verbal foreplay with a dull dissertation on the sexual politics at play, but let’s get straight down to business.

Fifty Shades poster

The official Fifty Shades film poster.

Just how hot is Fifty Shades the Movie?

Somewhere between a slow simmer and a rolling boil. There are steamy sex scenes, but with an underlying bleakness. Johnson’s strong performance as Anastasia – who veers constantly between unbridled excitement and deep anguish – actually lessens the heat.

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Is it as explicit as the book?

No. But it’s not exactly The-Sound-of-Music-tame, either.

Spoiler alert/censor’s warning: this film does contain strong sex scenes, crops, cable ties, references to “non-vanilla” sexual practices you may not have heard of, random acts of submission and extensive nudity. But not enough nudity for at least one audience member at the Adelaide premiere, who was heard to comment that Dornan shouldn’t have kept his pants on so much.

Does Dornan make a convincing Mr Grey?

Much ado was made about the casting for this film, with Robert Pattinson (Twilight) and Ryan Gosling both apparently considered for the role of Grey. In the end, Dornan (Phil Spector in the television drama The Fall) scored the role, and the choice of a lesser-known actor was probably a smart move on the part of the producers.

Readers will inevitably have their own preconceived visions of what Grey should look like, and while Dornan could convey a more consistent commanding presence, he strikes a reasonable balance between powerful intensity and tortured vulnerability.

The star turn, however, comes from Dakota Johnson (The Social Network, The Five-Year Engagement).  Her performance and screenwriter Kelly Marcel’s adapted script add depth to Anastasia – she seems sharper, stronger, sadder and sassier than the character in James’ narrative.

The overall verdict?

I’m hardly the target audience, but the film did exceed my expectations, and the buzz among the mostly female audience at the Adelaide premiere indicated the punters were happy.

The direction by Taylor-Johnson (little-known aside from the fact she directed the John Lennon drama Nowhere Boy) is slick, the adapted script results in a surprising number of laugh-out-loud moments, and the central performances are strong. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, it’s sadder than you might expect, and it certainly ain’t high art, but Fifty Shades fans are unlikely to be disappointed.

Ultimately, like the first book, the movie serves as a tease. And two sequels are already planned, with the first scheduled for release in 2016. No doubt the fans will happily wait.

Laters, babe.

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