What little worked in Fifty Shades of Grey worked because director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel played on a psychological thriller angle, and Dakota Johnson was able to use her natural screen presence to inject some slyness into Anastasia Steele that made her more than just a weepy doormat for the demanding, dominant Christian Grey to push around. Well, all of that is gone now. Perhaps sensing that the first movie was an attempt at a feminist critique of her submissive Cinderella story, author EL James, carrying a producer’s credit and wielding increased power behind the scenes, has ensured that this time, the movie adheres more faithfully to her book. And just as with Twilight, which spawned Fifty Shades as fanfiction, that proves to be a fatal mistake.
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan do not have world-burning chemistry, which is a HUGE problem for a movie franchise built on fantasy sex. It was problem last time and it’s an even bigger problem this time, as every fifteen minutes the movie segues into fairly explicit sex scenes. Credit where it’s due: Christian is shown going down on Ana repeatedly, and he seems to enjoy the act as much as she does. (Lainey: BUT DO WE SEE HIS COME FACE?)
I support Fifty Shades’ existence as female fantasy, catering to a desire shared among many women to explore the more taboo corners of sexuality. Women have all kinds fantasies and Fifty Shades plays into the fantasy of exploration and experimentation. Indeed, even as Ana refuses another formal BDSM arrangement with Christian, she still wants to play with his toys and explore his “red room of pain”. Unfortunately all of those sequences fall flat because the leads have the chemistry of damp toast.
And the non-sex scenes aren’t much better. Gone is Taylor-Johnson’s and Marcel’s attempt at wry humor, replaced with diffident direction from James Foley (House of Cards), and unimaginative scripting from Niall Leonard (EL James’s husband). There wasn’t much style in the first movie and there is absolutely zero here—the lighting is so flat the whole movie looks like a cheap cologne commercial. The best-looking scene is the one on Christian’s yacht, by virtue of being outside, shot in natural light, and featuring the bright, vivid colors of ocean and sky. And there are so many beauty shots—beauty shots of lingerie, beauty shots of Christian’s abs, beauty shots of computers, beauty shots of keychains. This is basically Beauty Shot: The Movie.
But by far the biggest problem is the complete lack of drama. Every problem encountered by the young lovers is easily solved within moments of its introduction. Christian and Ana begin on the outs, but with just a couple minutes’ pleading, Ana decides to reconcile with Christian. Ana has a pervy boss who is banished from the film as soon as he becomes a problem. (The ending attempts to set him up as the final movie’s villain and the audience openly laughed at this.) Christian is in a helicopter crash and returned home safe and sound within actual minutes of this plot point being introduced. Everything is so easily resolved it drains the movie of any conflict or drama.
This is where adherence to the book is a problem. All of these are plot points in the book, but they don’t all need to be in the movie. There’s also a stalker, a former submissive of Christian’s, and the older woman, Elena, who preyed on him as a teenager, played by Kim Basinger, who looks like she can barely be bothered to wake up to deliver her lines—and these characters are the most natural fit for the movie’s dramatic engine. Through them we gain perspective on Christian’s past and trauma, and they give Ana the chance to be assertive. Johnson is at her best when Ana confronts Elena, but that plot is short-changed in order to incorporate all the other non-drama.
Every year there are dozens—hundreds—of terrible movies made aimed at men. But there are so few movies made catering specifically to female fantasy and desire that it’s a shame Fifty Shades Darker is as bad as this. Because this is a bad, bad movie, and while there will undoubtedly be people who enjoy it—because there is literally no alternative if you want a mainstream movie about a woman’s sexual journey—that audience deserves better than Fifty Shades Darker. Maybe that adaptation of the other Twilight-inspired fanfiction with explicit sex, Christina Lauren’s Beautiful Bastard, can finally get off the ground, but I suspect with Fifty Shades expecting diminishing returns, the “graphic female fantasy sex movie” sub-genre is in danger of extinction.
Here are Jamie and Dakota at the Madrid premiere of Fifty Shades Darker last night.