Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Rita Ora, Victor Rasuk. Directed by James Foley.
It’s about halfway through James Foley’s follow up to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 2015 BDSM & moping adaptation of E.L. James’ book that one thing dawns on you, this is starting to show promise.
Let’s back up, this time around Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is broken up from Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), billionaire CEO of
Wayne Stark Grey Industries, but he’s a persistent little bugger and manages to wear her down, and then things go balls (snicker) up.
There are three fatal flaws to Foley’s admirable if not entirely successful erotic thriller.
It’s depiction of BDSM is woeful — for better tips on clamps, plugs and stuff to insert into your nether parts go to Pornhub (other porn sites are available). We at No Majesty are no strangers to things in the bedroom and if your kinks are links in chains and pains then good, enjoy. In the past many wonderful people we’ve known have enjoyed wet bits of lettuce being flicked at their naughty parts. There’s nothing wrong with it, but for all the posturing the film makes about the Red Room of Pain, there’s very little red room, and even less pain. And the implication that only mentally damaged people who are the children of crack addicts and pimps will get into it is wrong, and offensive.
There is, unfortunately, very little chemistry between Johnson and Dornan. Johnson, who’s hair is clearly styled on James herself, is bland. Yes, Kristen Stewart was pretty awkward in her role in Twilight, but she managed to show herself as an edgy type in her follow up work. Here Johnson looks like too much like a rich girl to convince as poor virgin, and too much of a bland face to ever convince us that rich fuckboy Christian would ever be interested in her. Similarly Dornan is woefully miscast as world weary sadist Grey, as he’s far too babyfaced to convince us he’s looked long into the abyss. Even adding stubble won’t help cover up the fact that he’s just a cute boy and not a dark figure of mystery.
The film’s pacing is all over the show. To strain out a sexual metaphor, the first act is a drawn out foreplay session, all tease and no release. The second act is a painful undressing, there’s touching, there’s pleasure but not nearly enough. And then there’s a third act, intercourse that comes all too quickly. Okay, that metaphor is strained, but it serves a point. The first half of the film repeats the same character arc three times. Christian says “I like BDSM”, Ana says “I can’t believe you like BDSM” and runs off, then Christian says “Sorry I like BDSM” and Anna forgives him, they have missionary sex to a popsong, cut to next scene.
It’s not all bad, however, and the reviews that slate it are wrong. It’s just uneven. The film, unlike the first, does have levity and gestures towards what it could be. Had the film not been hampered by E.L. James’ and her clearly cuckhold (ask your dad) husband Niall’s awful writing, the film could have been fashioned into part social commentary rom-com and part erotic psychological thriller.
You see, the parts where James and Leonard think they’re being romantic and sexy tend to just come off as abusive and weird. Christian has Ana’s bank details, has her followed, buys the company she works for, is rude to her boss – these are far from healthy. Most importantly, he refers to her as his possession. Now, had this been played as him thinking he’s being romantic and everyone reacting like they’re in an episode of the office, this would be funny. A sort of Trading Places/Pretty Woman/My Fair Lady romantic comedy about a rich idiot who tries to wow a poor virgin with his money but realises it’s his heart she wants – that’s a good film.
And then as it gestures towards four villains (four, god damn it) it could get even better. The introduction of Eric Johnson as Ana’s publisher boss Jack Hyde offers a window into the dark side of Christian, with a sinister turn that sets up a sequel. Then there’s side player Victor Rasuk as photographer and perpetual side frowner Jose, a second tier lover who does an art exhibition solely about Ana.
Vying for Christian’s whips, chains and sorbet (we’ve not read the books), is Bella Heathcote as bunny boiler (more bus starer) Leila who offers a Miss Havisham blast from Christian’s S&M past, and provides some of the chillier scenes and one decent jump scare. Heathcote gets a thankless role but she makes it work. And of course Academy Award winner Kim Basinger as the previously mentioned Mrs Robinson – actual name Elena Lincoln, crazy name – crazy bitch. Basinger’s casting is a clear nod to 9 1/2 weeks which similarly was all blow and no job. But it’s a fun turn where she spends all her time pursing her lips so tight her face looks like it’ll snap.
These flashes of a psycho-sexual thriller film in the mould of an Adrian Lyne film would be great (he’s not made a film since Unfaithful and that’s a great thriller), that with a flash of bum and boobies every twenty minutes would also be a great movie. But the film spends so long building to it’s less an explosive orgasm and more a sad wank.
There are also great performances to compliment Mr Johnson and Basinger who both give good baddie. We also have Rita Ora as Christian sassy sister Mia, who is by far the film’s MVP and a promise of a bigger role of part three bodes well, and Marcia Gay Harden, the other gong holder in the cast, who is having such a blast yet again — it’s all she can do not to burst into laughter portraying Christian’s overbearing but well meaning mother.
However, the real film and spin off material is in Eloise Mumford and Luke Grimes as Ana’s bestie Kate and Christian’s brother Elliot who hooked up in the first film and have been bumping uglies and taking selfies ever since. The two of them are so full of life, have actual chemistry and are objectively sexy that a film about them two going around the various beaches, drinking cocktails and having copious amounts of sex would be a much better film than the one you’re watching.
But, with some Dallas-style drinks thrown in faces, some slapped faces and a smoking jilted almost-lover staring into the distance, there’s a scene set for a sexy thriller coming later. It’s an upward slant, it’s an improvement.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.