Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB. USA, 2015. Focus Features, Michael De Luca Productions, Trigger Street Productions. Screenplay by Kelly Marcel, based on the novel by E.L. James. Cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. Produced by Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, E.L. James. Music by Danny Elfman. Production Design by David Wasco. Costume Design by Mark Bridges. Film Editing by Anne V. Coates, Lisa Gunning, Debra Neil-Fisher. Academy Awards 2015. Golden Globe Awards 2015.
Inexplicable success in bookstores led to this inevitable big screen adaptation of the first of E.L. James’ trilogy of books, about a love affair between a young college student and her BDSM-loving boyfriend. A book that readers insisted was terrible while consuming it voraciously should have lead to a shameless cinematic guilty pleasure but, alas, the result is something far too clean and tame to be sexy, and written with far too little slyness to be fun. Dakota Johnson is implausible as the inexperienced young woman who is swept off her feet by handsome billionaire businessman Jamie Dornan after interviewing him for her college paper. He refuses to get intimate with her except physically, telling her that he is incapable of love because of the dark secrets of his past that have made him both emotionally unavailable and a big fan of whips and chains. She’s scared of his red room, but after a few silly spankings and the odd moment with her hands tied up finds that she feels even closer to him in bondage than she did with the old fashioned romps in the sheets. There’s some silly excuses for legitimate life surrounding these two and their insipid drama, friends and family who make no impression but do provide great actors like Callum Keith Rennie and Marcia Gay Harden with well-deserved paycheques, as if there is a fear from behind the camera that more prurient audiences will be turned off by the film’s subject matter if the stars aren’t immersed in the kind of upper-class trappings that movies often employ (imagine Magnificent Obsession but with a sex swing instead of a philanthropic ideal). The real disappointment, though, is that the sex has no flavour and isn’t nearly as kinky as is being sold to you: Dornan and Johnson are both appealing and wonderful performers but have no chemistry, he never convincing as a man with a sense of mastery that borders on threat (think back to Mickey Rourke in 9 1/2 Weeks and ask yourself who’d win in a boner standoff) and she never in the least bit believable as someone who needs to be given lessons in comfort or self-confidence. When Johnson does finally get herself tied up and smacked, there’s never much of a sense that she’s releasing anything that was held back or that she’s even having that good a time. Reversing the top and bottom roles between these two would help things make sense, but even then you’d still have to deal with the laughably bad dialogue and the fact that Dornan’s poor job of hiding his Irish accent is grating to listen to. Stick with Nymphomaniac or Maitresse instead.