Sam Taylor-Johnson, director of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, has taken a badly written novel and turned it into a piece of gold-plated schlock. Worldwide, the film has been a box-office sellout, taking more than $500 million in its first few weeks. Admittedly, this audience is probably 99% female and unlike ‘Sex and the City’ (2008), which had a large gay male following, men are highly unlikely to flock to see ‘Fifty Shades’. This one is exclusively for the girls.

In case you have been living under a rock, here’s what all the fuss is about. ’Fifty Shades’ introduces Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a final year university student who, as a favour to her sick roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford), interviews wealthy businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the college magazine. Anastasia slowly becomes romantically involved with the enigmatic Christian. She has never been in a sexual relationship before, whereas Christian has had many and has developed very “particular” tastes that involve bondage, domination, submission and a requirement that Anastasia sign a non-disclosure agreement. She must therefore go through the contract and decide which items and clauses she can agree to and which she cannot. Anastasia must also agree never to talk to anyone about Christian or anything that happens in “the red room of pain” – sometimes referred to in the film as “the playroom”.

There was an intense media buzz surrounding the film, particularly in reference to the dilemma of adapting an X-rated novel into a film suitable for cinema audiences, with promises that the big screen experience would be sufficiently packed with sex scenes. However, there are no sex scenes in the first 40 minutes of the movie. In fact, the collective sex scenes contribute to just 20 minutes of this exhausting two hour plus film. Although the original author EL James retained overall control of the script and the final film, there were run-ins between the writer and director throughout the filmmaking process. Whatever the challenges, Taylor-Johnson has managed to create a very painterly film where her artistic roots undeniably shine through. From the opening shots of ‘Fifty Shades’, Taylor-Johnson has filled every space with a richness of colour, perfect lighting and a profusion of art and artistic devices. The detail in Grey’s penthouse apartment is opulent and perfectly placed and indeed, Taylor-Johnson demonstrates with just about every shot and frame, that she understands the importance of the mise-en-scene and the blocking of the set. This is probably down to her work as a photographer but in the absence of a strong script and any chemistry between the leading actors, Taylor-Johnson has had to fill the void with something worth looking at. 

‘Fifty Shades’ has very little real substance; Taylor-Johnson has polished it up by removing a lot of the original corny dialogue and replacing it with a toned down ordinariness that is slightly more believable and relatable. The film is an outrageous fantasy that has attracted a huge female audience as well as great criticism and opposition. At the same time it is impossible to ignore the fact that the book was self-published first as an e-book and then, through word of mouth quickly became a viral phenomenon. Appealing initially to women over thirty, it was rapidly picked up by younger women and higher education students. By April 2012, James had a publisher and the story was purchased primarily for e-reading devices. This meant people – who are we kidding? This meant women could read the novel in public and nobody would know that they were enjoying an ‘erotic novel’. Now however, that comfort zone of secrecy has been removed, and women in their droves have flooded the cinema to watch their fantasies come to life.

The film was released on Valentines Day, with a view to marketing the film as one for couples, an exciting and romantic experience to share with your partner. This failed. Of all the people I have spoken to, not one has been able to persuade their partner to join them. Opposition groups targeted cinemas in the US and the UK in order to highlight the abusive and violent content directed against women that ‘Fifty Shades’ romanticises and the film has been critically panned across the board. Nevertheless, Universal Studios signed the writer, director and actors into the next two films in the franchise. So it will be interesting to see if this extremely divisive film will return for a sequel or retreat back into the safety of our imagination.

Rating: 5.2/10