Director: James Foley
Runtime: 118 kinky sex minutes
A wise man once told me that instead of writing a review as to whether or not you should watch a film, you should instead provide advice on how to watch the film in question. I imagine you, dear reader (and this will be the last time there is anything resembling an allusion to Jane Austen’s writings in this review), have already decided whether or not you will see the latest instalment in the “kinky sex franchise”. If my opinion on kinky sex mattered to you—well, that in itself is a trust exercise kinky in nature. Our safe word is “independent thought”, just so you know. If you point out that that’s two words, I will respond by letting you know that you are already learning. But I will do my best to provide some sort of key to Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) based on the novels written by E.L. James about a gratuitously exaggeratedly affluent man and the young woman he chooses to court by throwing money, sex contracts, and by being Edward Cullen-esque pouty and “complicated” in nature, hence more interesting than the more emotionally adjusted men that surround her.
Enough horsing around, although I should mention that there are no horses in Fifty Shades Darker—we’re not going as kinky as Kinky Kelly from Clerks II (2006) or Kenneth Pinyan from Zoo (2007). This might be the first and only time I get to work in my favourite horsey sex trivia fact—Zoo was originally going to be released under the title In the Forest There is Every Kind of Bird, which is eerily beautiful for a film about bestiality.
There seem to be two sexual fantasy threads running through this sequel, and I doubt the first film is much different. Even the layperson (ha-ha?) is probably familiar with the “kinky sex” aspect. But more apparent to me was the rich lifestyle fantasy. Whilst discussing a lump sum of $24,000, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) tells Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) “I make that much in 15 minutes”. It feels this line is supposed to arouse almost as much as any of the sexual allusions or attempts at romance. With finance comes security, sure, but my personal tastes, as someone who romanticises the struggle of the artist and the everyman—scrapping their way through life, earning every moment of relief and carving out their own niches of happiness—found the completely unnecessary wealth of the Christian Grey character, frankly, creepy. There are moments in the film that seem to suggest love can be bought. No, I’m not talking about companionship nor frowning on sex work as a legitimate industry and societal need—I am talking about the genuine affections of another human being as it pertains to another person’s character.
Despite the ruckus it has caused with its alleged propagation of kinky sex, Darker actually seems to frown upon BDSM. The unique initialism, in which letters stand for multiple things, refers to: “bondage and discipline”, “dominance and submission”, and “sadism and masochism”. That lazy masochistic “M” making the other letters do all the work—it’s almost sadistic. To my very best recollection, the phrase is not invoked even once in the context of the film. There is some talk of “subs” and “sadism”, but when the big “S”s are summoned, it is almost always in a negative light. These are aspects to the characters that they need to change if they are going to live healthy sexual lives. Contrary to the popular belief, it feels like this amateur foray into “darker appetites” is actually subconsciously kink-shaming. It is an established point that in the last film, Anastasia left Christian because the kinky sex scared her off. In this film, something resembling the film’s idea of romance (possibly more realistically akin to an attempt at contractual ownership) makes her decide she wants to “run before she crawls” because she spontaneously decides “I like running”. This is my favourite of the many eye-roll inducing lines in the film. There were some points I almost gave myself a concussion, which I believe makes me an “M”. Ultimately though, the sex is rather tame and secondary to an attempt at a love story between the characters, and the idea that the bad boy can be changed.
Dakota Johnson does an admirable job of portraying Anastasia Steele. The script doesn’t give her character much by way of motivation. There’s nothing particularly endearing about her. The film seems to want to project intelligence onto the character. She sits in for her boss at a publication company, played by Eric Johnson (who exudes more sexual charisma than Jamie Dornan, but is cast as the creepy villainous abuser of women, as opposed to sexy heroic abuser of women). In the meeting, Anastasia has such brilliant ideas as: appealing to new readers as well as their old clientele. Glad to have you on the team, Ana.
Dornan struggles with his role a lot more. He’s a handsome chap, and that seems to be the prioritised prerequisite of the Fifty Shades, but there’s nothing charming about the role. He plays an overbearing, controlling, emotionally stunted, bore of a billionaire as an overbearing, controlling, emotionally stunted, bore of a billionaire. I would not write Dornan off as an actor for this role, but it is thanklessly as a piece of meat – although I’m sure Dornan knew exactly what he was getting himself into, and is now probably worshipped by many women around the world with a bank account hefty enough to play Christian Grey in reality.
Marcia Gay Harden provides the best performance in the film. She plays Christian Grey’s mother, and she is a living treasure that proves she can bust out great performances in even the simplest of tent-pole films. Kim Basinger is also there, in a hilarious soap opera-like portrayal of a cougar dramatically emerging out from the shadows to scary music at times. I’m not sure if it is supposed to be as funny as I am making out, but when talking about how to watch this movie, make sure you mine guilty pleasure from those moments. Also very funny to me were the constant appearances of a little ghost girl, for lack of a better term, who is shown standing on street corners for jump-scares to interrupt Anastasia trying to sort out her “complicated” life. It’s a shame that the joke is spoiled by a revelation that tries to make you feel guilty for laughing. It might come sometime after the plane crash, which I realise typing this had no actual bearing on the plot other than to have all the characters standing around asking “Where’s Poochy?” when Poochy’s not on screen.
Ultimately, the best thing I can say about Fifty Shades Darker is that it is vanilla. Considering the perception it seems to have of itself, this would be an insult. The characters talk about “vanilla relationships” and “vanilla sex”. But some people love vanilla. Go in expecting vanilla. I saw the film with a group of women. They seemed to genuinely enjoy it, even though “the sex was better in the last one”. I’ll take their word for it. I recommend watching it with a giant tub of vanilla ice-cream and someone that you find genuinely stimulating—because if you’re the sort of person who tempers your interest via cultural feedback, I doubt this film is going to do much stimulating for you. Even softcore porn is more arousing, and Up (2009) tells a better love story. You probably already know this. If you want to test whether you are a cinematic “M”, however, how do I suggest watching Fifty Shades Darker? With an open mind and a safe word that lets whoever you are with know the experiment is over. That’s it, let’s go and watch some Kubrick. Do you know he wanted to make a porn film? Let’s go and talk about that—now. If you are watching it alone, I suggest yelling out your safe word and marching out. “Shuttlecock!” the crazy person ejaculated in the cinema before storming out, their shoes squelching against the sticky floor. I am of course using “ejaculated” in the Arthur Conan Doylian sense there. Hey, I only said there would be no more Jane Austen references. And cinema floors get sticky—deal with it.
My one wish is that if you are a person that was not going to watch Fifty Shades Darker, I have not changed your mind. I’m not that much of an “S”. And if you stuck around for my opinion on kinky sex—first of all: why? Secondly, what is wrong with you? I know it’s tough being alone on Valentine’s Day, but you can do better. And thirdly, please don’t use this film as an instruction manual or measure for how life could or should be. Fifty Shades Darker knows the words but not the music. One thing it does know well is product placement, and that is colder than a shower with a polar bear. Unless you’re into that sort of thing, of course… after all, in the forest there is every kind of bird. Instead, try and watch Fifty Shades Darker as something resembling an unintentional comedy about how “complicated” life can be for characters without the “D” to stop being “M”s.