Fifty Shades of… [insert your own amusing pun here]

There’s been an awful lot of publicity around Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) over the past few weeks. With the UK Premiere on 12th February (just in time for Valentine’s couples and fun-loving singles alike) causing so much controversy, publicity seems to have doubled due to the – “50 Shades is Domestic Abuse” – related campaigns which have, in my view, overtaken the amount of attention given to the film itself. It’s funny, I don’t remember this degree of negative attention when the Fifty Shades craze first swept the country when the popularity of the books took hold, and the deeply sceptical side of me can’t help but wonder if it’s a rather convenient kind of publicity. After all, the first book was published in 2011 and the attention surrounding it has well and truly evaporated since then.

As far as I can tell, the argument from the – “50 Shades is Domestic Abuse” – group and others isn’t about the notion that BDSM is domestic abuse. It should ever be considered so (it’s just not) and to suggest that a woman can’t consent to something simply because of some background brain nag that she might be the physically less strong of the two seems to be denying us of certain sexual freedoms. It would also be to deny that women have the soundness of mind to judge what they want and do not want to happen to them and their bodies.  I think the concern is that Christian Grey’s personality is seen as deeply controlling and the unnerving dominance of his personality is what rings alarm bells for these protesters. At times, Christian’s character can become intense and even takes on some stalker-like tendencies (randomly showing up in Ana’s apartment, randomly showing up at cocktail hour with Ana and her mother…) Understandably, these kinds of aspects of the story have the potential to deeply upset those (male and female) who have been in genuinely abusive situations, where they have become the victims of this kind of mental abuse.

I want to make something clear at this stage. I have read the first Fifty Shades book. To call it a novel seems generous. At the time, I read it largely so that I could have an opinion about it; I thought it wasn’t very well written at all, and the constant mentions of Ana’s inner goddess and so forth made me feel a little sicker each time said goddess cropped up. There were a few moments where the prose became a little exciting, but in general it wasn’t worth the effort and I feel that, as a reader, I was having to do most of the work. I did not read the second and third books. What surprised me during all of the Fifty Shades hype was their reception, as if something ground-breaking and shocking had been unleashed. Take it from someone who has done their homework and read the complete works of de Sade, Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs and Pauline Reage’s two Story of O books; nothing groundbreaking is happening with Fifty Shades. You are better off finding a good Mills and Boon from the Blaze range in your local Oxfam Book Shop. I would strongly recommend Daring in the Dark.

And then there’s the plagiarism issue. Secretary was directed by Steven Shainberg in 2002 and was based on a rather different feeling short story by Mary Gaitskill. In this superb film, James Spader plays Mr E. Edward Grey (hang on just a kinky minute… this sounds rather familiar…) a lawyer who takes on a secretary in the form of nervous and damaged Lee Holloway, played by the fantastic Maggie Gyllenhaal, by far and away one of my favourite actresses. Through the course of this story, Edward and Lee make a profound and deeply romantic connection; he is at first ashamed of his predilections, they are both presented as broken (yet no different from your average human) and they form a partnership which embraces their highly compatible tastes. Secretary was awarded an 18 certificate in the UK, an R in the US and a slightly surprising 12 in France, evidently standing up to its more liberal reputation. It may interest you to know that the film of Fifty Shades was awarded exactly the same certification in these three countries. Aside from the obvious debt which Fifty Shades owes to Secretary, let’s also not forget its ugly origins as a piece badly written Twilight fan-fiction.

Fifty Shades of Grey is based on the book by E.L. James and is directed by Sam[antha] Taylor-Johnson.  It follows the story of a chance encounter between helicopter wielding millionaire Christian Gray and mousy English Literature student Anastasia Steele, who is sent to conduct an interview with him when her best friend – a journalism student – takes ill.  What follows is a series of supposedly sexy encounters where Christian seems to pop up wherever Ana happens to be, leaving her increasingly breathless.

Allow me to set the scene: I was fully prepared to enjoy this film. I know that I sound hostile to the book, but I read the thing; it was mildly diverting and I found its flaws entertaining, too. I also happened to be going to the cinema with my best friend over half term, and that was pretty good too. What sullied my mood a little to begin with was when I realised that tickets at our local Odeon now appear to have gone up to £9.75 per standard seat each. I was particularly pleased at this point that we had decided to microwave our own popcorn and smuggle it in with us; score one for the cinema-going underdog.

There were about five of us in the screen (a very small auditorium), with ages from barely eighteen to just-about pensioners. We were all women with the exception of one middle-aged male who cleared his throat occasionally just to remind us that he was there. I noted with interest the types of adverts which were played before the trailers; Durex pleasure gel and a very hastily-made advert for a shop in Chatham which sold an assortment of Fifty Shades themed sex toys. I kid you not, these adverts where the best bit of the cinema experience; they were both more amusing and sexier. Fact.

Anastasia Steele was portrayed by Dakota Johnson, who as far as I’m concerned did a reasonable enough job in the role. I think I imagined Anastasia a little more plain looking and clumsy, more of an awkward every-girl, but I admire anyone who could play that part without lapsing into constant giggles. My problem with Anastasia isn’t in the playing of her; it’s unfortunately in the writing. Given that Christian asks Ana to do her ‘research’ she still comes across as incredibly naïve throughout and the implication that her studies in classic English Literature have led her to engage only in romance and no smut is clearly ridiculous. After Ana accuses Christian of trying to change her, you can’t help but wonder if she is aware of her staggering hypocrisy; Ana does nothing but insist that Christian changes from their first night together (why can’t we share a bed, why do you have to be like this, why won’t you let me in… blah blah blah blah blah…)

I’m the same with Christian. Jamie Dornan also managed to keep a straight face throughout, though he was a lot ‘cuter’ than I had anticipated. I had envisaged the role of Christian as darker, more mysterious, charming and enigmatic – vulnerable but still not childlike. I’m also frustrated by the suggestion that Christian is only inclined towards a dominant BDSM role because he was traumatised in his youth. That, combined with other badly researched inconsistencies, adds to the sense that Fifty Shades is achieving nothing. It’s not romantic; there are too many irritating email/text-based flirtatious scenes for that and the nature of Christian’s unwillingness to ‘let anyone in’ meant a lot of the interaction between the two lovers is quite standoffish in feeling. It’s not sexy; there was little on-screen chemistry and the ‘key’ scenes seemed very clinical and orchestrated. A female director was entrusted in conveying the reasonably tame lustful fantasies of a female writer, and you might think that she would be able to capture this similar ‘dark desires of a frustrated housewife’ style that E. L. James at least fleetingly captures (though I feel that the imagination of the reader is doing most of the work here.) It’s impossible to create anything genuinely erotic or smutty if you are trying to keep your movie shiny, and I can’t help but feel that a more independent director under a lot less pressure to reach a commercial audience might have done a better job. Nudity and sex on screen, whether for good or ill, is hardly a novelty any more, and on its own feels very easy to take or leave. The film is not even instructive; if one were to go to a hardware store for their BDSM supplies, the odds are someone would lose a hand through lack of poor circulation. Apparently, bondage-related emergency calls to the fire department have been on the up recently, the pressure on our emergency services is already too great!

Fifty Shades of Grey was dull, flat and lifeless, like the ‘before’ in a clichéd shampoo advert. If it brings a wider audience to Secretary however, then no harm done. I also had a wonderful time at the cinema with my best friend. By the way, she didn’t like it either.

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