Film Review: Fifty Shades Darker

The howlingly dreadful middle stretch of E.L. James’ reputedly erotic trilogy finds its mumbly, colorless dominant-submissive couple going straight vanilla.
Major Releases

It’s difficult to tell what provides the first clue that Fifty Shades Darker is going to be a truly dire experience for any but the most devoted E.J. James fan. Perhaps it’s discovering that the most erotic moment will be the way the camera caresses the luxury objects littering the film like a catalog. Maybe it’s the incessant drill of light pop music slathered over each scene; Danny Elfman is credited here with composing the music, but good luck finding any evidence. Whatever it is, that moment comes well before the truly incomprehensible scene where we watch Christian Grey (the fearsomely anti-magnetic Jamie Dornan) working out while listening to the Police’s “So Lonely.” (See? It’s symbolic.) By that point, most everyone will have given up and just started treating this as the year’s great unintentional comedy.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson)—these people have monikers that sound like superheroes’ secret civilian names—was a mousy, brown-haired wallflower who fell into a BDSM relationship with Grey. A controlling billionaire who flies his own helicopters and has secret lairs and a bodyguard—again, like a superhero, only ultimately far more boring—Christian took the dominant thing too far with Anastasia. She fled from the dark cruelty she saw in him. Now, in the sequel, he’s trying to win her back. But she’s making her way in the world, working at a small publisher and getting the eye from her just-as-chiseled boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), and not willing to put up with Christian’s domineering nonsense.

Until she does. In her words, “I was reading Austen and Bronte and nobody ever measured up to that.” Showing no understanding of plot dynamics, not to mention grand romance, the Niall Leonard screenplay reunites Anastasia and Christian almost before he can get out the words “I’ve changed.” All it takes is Christian experiencing bad dreams and divulging his deep, dark secret about a damaged childhood for Anastasia to forgive him all his bullying. For all the talk about how the first film was a sex-positive women’s film that put Anastasia and her desires in the driver’s seat, in this fairly retrograde take on women—the women are almost entirely passive when they’re not villainous—she has precious little agency here. After mustering a token fight at the start, she relents and allows the single-minded billionaire to run her life again.

This dynamic doesn’t exactly throw off sparks, particularly considering that as part of Anastasia’s “renegotiation” with Christian they have transitioned to being a vanilla couple without any of the BDSM rules she tired of before. He still has his full arsenal of crops and chains, of course, and the odd accoutrement that has her saying with giggle-inducing flatness, “You’re not going to put that in my butt.” So, cue the spanking, masks, buckles and all the rest of it. But drained of any darker resonance, the film’s both too frequent and overly truncated sex scenes become just one more thing for the audience to muddle through.

One would expect better from director James Foley, taking the franchise reins here from Sam Taylor-Johnson. There was a time when he could be counted on for solidly percussive and florid nonsense like the Mark Wahlberg thriller Fear or the underrated Jim Thompson pulp adaptation After Dark, My Sweet. But here, most likely due to the creative handcuffs that come with a highly controlled media property and pre-selected stars, there isn’t much that he can do with the jumbled material.

This is a film in which half-baked family drama leads into quasi-erotic thriller territory, only to flit sideways into boilerplate romance and generic chick-lit workplace wish-fulfillment fantasy. A creepy stalker is introduced, only to be discarded and then returned to much later in almost random fashion. One of the leads has a life-threatening scare that is resolved within mere minutes. Ancillary characters are thrown back in with ill-defined purpose and to little effect, though at least some of the showier ones like Marcia Gay Harden and Rita Ora (as Christian’s adoptive mother and sister, respectively) try to make up for the sparks not being delivered by the pallid leads.

Since James started writing these books as Twilight fan fiction, maybe somebody could return the favor by writing Fifty Shades fan fiction in which the interesting characters lead interesting lives and say interesting things. Then somebody could make a film of that.

Click here for cast and crew information.