And just as Mr. Grey was popping Ana’s cherry, Michael Pattison felt a slight but sudden draft of air hit his neck…
No doors had opened, no fans had gone on, no shivers had shot down my spine. No: it was one of the two security guards circling the periphery of the Berlin Film Festival’s press screening of Fifty Shades of Grey, marching behind me in the very back row with watchful intent, at the precise moment when the film was finally getting down to its business. I’ve, um, never zipped up as fast.
Apparently employed by Universal Pictures, these two suited lumps were present to enforce a no cell phones policy during the film. (Not that they were very successful; I was far more efficient when clicking my fingers at some palpably bored attendee checking her messages halfway through in the row in front.) You’d have thought we’d gathered to watch Angela Merkel address us in person. No such luck—and to be fair we didn’t deserve it, so horrible had we been when pushing into the queue and refusing to join the back of it when one poor staff member rightfully tried to defend those who’d shown up early in the knowledge that a mad rush for entry into this super-comfy 380-seat IMAX screen was very likely.
For Fifty Shades of Grey, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s second feature after 2009’s Nowhere Boy, is a hot enough property to fight for, be rude for, intimidate for, be fraudulent for and finally be supervised by security men for in case someone records it on a shitty phone a day before its hotly anticipated worldwide theatrical release. This is a carefully branded advertisement for precisely nothing but the two hours of time it runs for, and each one of the megabucks it’s destined to make depends upon the sustained conspiracy surrounding it: from the pared-down “exclusive” Beyoncé remixes on the expertly designed trailer to the film’s own cliffhanger ending, Shades is as slickly packaged a product as its eponymous cipher’s branded pencils. And we all want to suck on the end of it.
“Business is about people,” says self-made CEO of Grey Enterprises Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) during a ten-minute interview by English Literature student Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson). “I’ve always been good with people.” Funny, then, how for the rest of the film Grey shows no such signs: if it isn’t his dead sociopath eyes that give the game away, it’s the fact he literally has no friends. Barring his butler Taylor (Max Martini) and a few high-heeled blondes who bring him food during business meetings, Grey barely even has employees, and when new girlfriend Ana asks him if they can go on dates and to the movies like normal people, he says that it isn’t really his thing. (“Try to have an open mind,” he adds, delivering the film’s funniest joke.)
What is Mr. Grey’s thing is to take a woman into his playroom (“like your X-Box and stuff?”) and tie her, whip her, sodomise her and mistreat her till she’s in tears and in need of gentler reassurances. “You’re a sadist!” Ana remarks before spending the rest of the film deliberating over the contract her new boyfriend wants her to sign. Having fallen for literature through Hardy (not Austen, not Brontë), Ana has a few amendments to propose, and does so in an exquisitely lit business-style meeting with her dominant-to-be: for starters, her address needs to be changed, but also let’s wipe off anal fisting, vaginal fisting and that sub-clause involving genital clips. Grey agrees to all of these, and even throws in a sweetener: for one night of her choosing every week, Ana and he can go out into the real world and do date stuff. Because it’s not Grey who’s changing Ana, it’s Ana who’s changing Grey.
The problem both with E.L. James’ novel and Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation (written for the screen by Kelly Marcel, whose sole previous film credit was Saving Mr. Banks) is that Grey’s preferred kind of sex simply isn’t provocative in our oversaturated age of Web 2.0. When you can watch all manner of scenarios—consensually filmed and otherwise—at the mere click of a mouse, where’s the dramatic stakes in viewing a lass of relatably humble origin count out all six lashings she receives across her buttocks? There’s something embarrassingly funny when Grey introduces Ana to his playroom and she looks at the torture rack, belts, straps and cuffs like one of Bruce Wayne’s lovers walking around the Batcave. Such naivety!
Like Wayne, Mr. Grey is a tortured billionaire who’s had a troubled upbringing. But that’s where the mystery ends: everything else about this character is designed to draw us in and leave us awed, from his Edward Cullen glances to the sad tunes he plays on his Fazioli piano after every sex scene. Most startling of all, though, is how for all the moaning and groaning displayed here, Mr. Grey doesn’t seem to have a penis: tactful to a fault, Taylor-Johnson’s crisply done joint wants to keep this smutty effort classy, meaning her leading actress has to bare her bum, nipples and other bits quite a lot but that Dornan gets off scot-free, only having to tear off the corner of a condom wrapper from time to time.
So respectful is this franchise of the forces that send bondage and the like to the margins while relying more than ever on the sad, sellable flesh of a woman. And these are the same prevailing forces that make a setting such as this plausible to begin with: a self-preserving capitalist coerces a poor humanities graduate and shop worker into becoming a class traitor. The new car, the first editions, the breakfast glider ride: you are all idiots.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @m_pattison