Fifty Shades of Grey

Year: 2015
Production Co: Focus Features
Studio: Universal
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Producer: EL James/Dana Brunetti/Michael De Luca
Writer: Kelly Marcel/EL James
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora

The psychology, philosophy, gender politics and cultural impact behind 50 Shades of Grey is much more interesting than anything on screen.

When Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) tells Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) 'no, Anna, it's you who's changed me,' it seems to be the female fantasy of melting the bad boy's hard shell to expose the heart beneath and reform him into a sensitive and devoted lover writ extremely large.

Or maybe it's just another retelling of the endless Cinderella myth. The fact that Grey is a billionaire businessman makes him just one more iteration of the handsome prince whose wealth and devotion will rescue the beautiful, unappreciated girl – the same archetype we've had since the days of the Brothers Grimm.

If he was a 49-year-old plumber – or even if he wasn't rich – would it be anything like the same story? What about if Anastasia was a supermodel? Actually Johnson (thanks to several nudes scenes) is revealed in her entirety to be a very attractive woman, but in true Hollywood style they put her in a ponytail and daggy shirt and she becomes the ugly duckling every real woman is supposed to relate to. All they forgot was the glasses (see Not Another Teen Movie).

The first thing you realise about 50 Shades of Grey after only about 10 minutes is that it's a terrible film to see with a theatre full of people. Not that the sex scenes are explicit in this day and age (the French classification board gave it the equivalent of a PG rating), but you're never so aware of the audience around you than when unintended laughter breaks out.

Many of the unintentional laughs are because of dialogue that's as overripe as you're expecting ('Why won't you let me in?' Anastasia pleads plaintively. 'I'm fifty shades of fucked up,' Christian says with a straight face even as the line hits the floor with a resounding clunk).

But plenty more laughter is simply the nervous kind of watching sex scenes with a room full of people you don't know. That's especially true when the film turns to the BDSM subject matter, the trappings and accouterments of which are inherently pretty funny to an observer – they're only really serious business if you're actually turned on by them (we've heard).

All of which tells you more about us as audiences than the movies themselves. Our instinct about sex is to laugh, and no matter how deadly serious 50 Shades of Grey wants to be it can't maintain the tone it's hoping for where sex is so deadly serious.

Early on, Anastasia takes the pencil Christian has given her from his office and puts it distractedly in her mouth, his company logo prominently visible. The script – with EL James' iron-fisted control (if you believe the stories) – undoubtedly made it a moment of whimsical, half-realised passion. On screen all it elicits are titters throughout the theatre when everyone assumes it's a blowjob joke.

If you're one of the 14 people worldwide who don't know the story, a nubile but self-conscious young student goes to interview the city's most eligible business magnate, making him fall head over heels for her in the process.

Except Christian Grey's tastes are – as he puts it – singular. He doesn't want flowers and movies and dinners out and touching. He's a dominant and wants a submissive to submit to all manner of bondage, whipping and punishment in his 'play room' (to be fair to the script, there are some actual jokes that work – when he tells Anna bout his secret room, she asks him if it contains his XBox).

He presents her with a bizarre contract that sets out everything she has to do – including her limits – in the course of their relationship, and even though Anna isn't sure about it, he initiates her gently into the scene in one of several (it has to be said) quite erotic scenes of sex and mild bondage play.

Anna wants them to be a more 'normal' couple, but it only makes Christian turn away from her no matter how much he wants her, and the film finishes on a cliffhanger that's so obvious all that's missing is a 'to be continued' tag.

Just like The Interview, 50 Shades of Grey is going to have an influence over culture that far outweighs any creative merit in the film itself. Neither Dornan nor Johnson are going to win Oscars, and while Sam Taylor-Johnson's direction is appropriately languid and sexy during the love scenes themselves, nothing else on screen is ever better than adequate.

But it's the kind of thing that's always going to have a place in Hollywood. It's a relatively cheap production with no CGI, fighting robots or superheroes that comes with a built in audience, all of whom will sit in the cinema laughing and pretending they're above it all while the studio counts up the dump trucks full of money they've handed over.

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