I didn’t really set out to become Fetish.com’s very own Fifty Shades expert, but somehow it happened. Not long after I started writing here I reviewed the books themselves, and when the last film came out two years ago I rushed off to see it so that I could share it with you all. Because I am nothing if not a masochist, I was top of the queue on Friday morning (well, early afternoon, but same difference) to investigate the latest installment.
Just like last time, the cinema audience was overwhelmingly female and contained more than one pair who I am pretty sure were mother and daughter. This weirded me out with the last one, too: why is this a thing?
Audience aside, I had a bag of chocolate and a film to watch. Almost the moment it started I realised this was not going to be a dramatic improvement on the one before.
I remember from reading this book that this is the moment at which EL James suddenly went “oh, shit, we’ve done a book where all they do is fuck, I’d better put a plot in”. That plot as presented in cinematic format is, somehow, even crappier and more disjointed than it is when presented as a novel. All the key elements from the book have been shoved in there somewhere. The pair getting back together, the sleazy boss incident and ensuing company takeover. The attack by Christian’s deranged ex, the masked ball, the helicopter crash, the proposal - but there’s nothing tying them together with any coherence, and if I hadn’t read the book there’s a lot that would have passed me entirely by.
There’s a pretty simple answer to why that is, incidentally. The woman who directed the first film actually wanted to make it good, but was shot down so comprehensively by James at every turn that it wound up far crappier than it had any need to be and the director in question refused to return for the sequel. Clearly of the opinion that she needed even more control over something she’d already proven herself to be no good at. EL James went on to hire her own husband to write the screenplay for the second installment.
The results are predictably terrible.
There are, to my mind, three major things that are very wrong with Fifty Shades Darker - even setting aside for a moment the clumsy script and uninspired direction.
In this film, we meet three characters who have clearly and explicitly chosen BDSM as a lifestyle and who have embraced the concept of ‘being kinky’ as a personal identity. They are, in order of appearance:
Christian himself, whose kink is the product of a severely abusive early childhood, who regards his proclivities as a shameful hindrance to him living the life he wants to lead, and who frequently tries to ‘cure’ himself of this ‘affliction’,
Elana, who is portrayed as a statutory rapist and an abuser in her own right, and who claims to care for Christian while also attempting to destroy his relationship with hissed remarks about how he’s incapable of normal, healthy emotions for another human being, and
Leila, who goes so completely insane with unrequited love for her “Master” that she stalks Ana for half the film and eventually attempts to murder her outright, and whose mind is unhooked enough that she kneels instantly for Christian on command despite her obvious serious disturbance.
Kink, in this supposedly kinky narrative, is portrayed exclusively as the product of either sickness or evilness or both. Ana, on the other hand, doesn’t really want to be kinky at all. This, you’ve got to understand, is because she is Pure and Good and Saintly, and has Come Down from On High to Redeem Us All.
Or words to that effect.
Here, for your education and enjoyment, is a list of just some of the moments in Fifty Shades Darker that made me wince and think ‘ow, right in the emancipation’:
Look, I get it, okay. Being pursued is kind of appealing. I’ve never had the patience to play hard to get, but I can see why it might be fun: there’s got to be a kick in knowing for sure that someone’s that into you, right? Trouble is, in writing these scenes James and her husband really needed to calm the fuck down on Christian’s superhuman persistence. We really need men to know that when we tell them to go the fuck away they should go the fuck away.
Pretty much every woman in that office winces when they see that Ana is about to become Jack Hyde’s next “victim”, but not a single one of them bothers to warn her that he’s a missing stair. That’s sisterhood for you.
PS: It’s still assault even if you don’t successfully knee them in the balls and run away. I get that for your own sake it’s a good idea if you can pull it off and I’m glad they didn’t do a full-on on-screen assault - the scene in question is uncomfortable enough already, and this film does not need to contain a rape. Somehow, though, the way Ana’s “escape” was portrayed here just felt like another example of her much-vaunted blemishlessness. “See! She fights back when she’s attacked, not like all you women who walk around after dark with your hair in a ponytail and no keys in your hand, who don’t buy special anti-rape knickers, who are practically asking for it!”
There’s nothing empowering about stepping over your better-qualified colleagues heads to a major promotion because your fiance bought the company, honey, and saying that you don’t expect them to make your coffee for you doesn’t actually help.
Kate, Anastasia's ball-busting best friend, is a badass. Or she was, anyway: in this film she’s a giggling, blonde hanger-on, entirely subsumed by her cooler-than-thou love interest.
For what it’s worth no, this film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test - but in all honesty I’m prepared to forgive it that: there’s no moment during the film’s duration when two men have a conversation about anything other than Christian Grey, either.
The truth is, I thought there would be more sex in it. The book has less than the first volume did, but more than this; my guess would have been that they skipped over some of the crappy “plot” because fucking works so well on screen and it’s what the people want from this film, but apparently that was optimistic of me.
What sex there is in here is pedestrian at best. There’s a scene in which Christian takes Ana out to a party while she’s wearing Ben Wa balls that - I swear to god - are literally from the official Fifty Shades sex toy line. Later that same evening, he affords her a few ineffectual swats with a cupped palm (seriously, his technique was bullshit) and calls it a ‘spanking’. For a plot that is supposedly hinged on kink, there sure isn’t much of it in evidence.
I’ve never been much of a fan of the concept of ‘hate watching’. As readers of my book reviews will recall, I have more time for Fifty Shades than many of my ilk - and I think that claiming Christian Grey is nothing more or less than an abuser is an oversimplification with some inherent problems of its own.
Tell you what, though, guys, I struggled with this one. Dakota Johnson is still a good actress, but she loses some of her sparkle against dialogue written by nobody who knows anything about writing dialogue for the big screen. On the bright side, she doesn’t bite her lip once, by which I was utterly thrilled - not even Johnson could make that shit look natural last time out.
I still don’t fancy Jamie Dornan. Honestly, I think I fancied him less this time than I did the time before. That vaulting horse scene is pretty fucking impressive nonetheless, however, and it did at least mean that the film had a brief glimmer of the female gaze it claims to be aimed at.
Christian’s mother is pretty great too, actually. Marcia Gay Harden has been in some stuff I genuinely respect (not to mention that she has won an Oscar), and she brings her warmth and skill to her all-too-brief on-screen moments here.
Fifty Shades Darker is undeniably a two-star film, with that extra star granted only for sheer watchability and a few good cast members. I always feel like it’s worth being up on the zeitgeist, though, especially if you’re involved with a subculture like those surrounding kink and BDSM - if this is who people “on the outside” think we are, what does that mean for us and should we do anything about it?
Abi Brown is a freelance writer and general pen-for-hire devoted to sexual deviancy, far-left politics and wearing too much jewelry. Find her at her website or @see_abi_write.
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