Fifty Shades of Grey could have been a much worse film than it turned out to be. Much credit must be given to director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel for managing to make a workable film from such horribly unworkable source material. To say nothing of the problems with its sexual politics, Fifty Shades is at the very least a poorly written novel, so the fact that much of the film’s dialogue doesn’t come off as silly and juvenile is a feat in and of itself. And yet, as the colloquialism goes, you can’t polish a turd. Fifty Shades is still a pretty bad film, but for surprisingly normal reasons given the trappings of its genre.
I won’t dwell on the story, as most people are at least cursorily familiar with it by now, and it honestly doesn’t merit much more inspection. Screenwriter Marcel has managed to pull a bit more character out of leads Anastasia and Christian than the book ever explored, but this mostly comes in the form of self-aware quips at the standard trappings of romantic clichés. At the end of the day, Anastasia is still a cypher on which the target demographic can project themselves, and Christian is supposed to be some idealized form of masculinity, and the film quickly devolves into a billionaire boyfriend fantasy, entirely devoid of character or substance. It’s just generically dull.
And I’m certainly not the first to point out how entirely problematic some key aspects of the Fifty Shades storyline is, though the film version does seem to place at least some effort into making consent and negotiation a visible priority, even if its characters routinely ignore their established boundaries. Even the so-called “kinky” sex scenes are extremely tame, almost laughably so. No, I would say the bigger problem that the film still cannot seem to escape is that the relationship between Anastasia and Christian is classically abusive, as Christian stalks Anastasia, using his wealth and connections to continually pull her back into his life. The film hopes this will come off as charming, but it has some rather frightening subtext that is only made worse by Christian’s insistence that he must be controlling, dominant, and physically violent due to a dark and abusive past. This is the type of escapism that perpetuates real-world abuse, the type of excuse a survivor of domestic violence turns to in order to justify her abuser’s actions. And what is perhaps the most tragic thing is that this isn’t even unusual in romantic fantasy; this instance just happens to be high profile for its BDSM sensationalism, an aspect that is underplayed in the film so as to retain an R rating.
The film ends with Anastasia leaving Christian, as she seemingly ends their relationship and leaves him behind. Director Taylor-Johnson reportedly wanted Anastasia to use the word “red” to prevent Christian from following her, thus signifying that their relationship had crossed an unwanted line. Producers changed the line to “stop” in order to keep the film in line with the novels so that the sequels could also be made. I opt to adopt Taylor-Johnson’s interpretation, as it casts a more tolerable shade on the whole affair. It may not save the film from itself, but it offers closure to a film for which the sequels will not have the benefit of Taylor-Johnson’s restrained guidance. It can only go downhill from here; let’s pretend this franchise ended on a high note.