Director: James Foley
Produced by: Michael De Luca
Written by: Niall Leonard
Based on: Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Marcia Gay Harden
Running Time: 118 Minutes
It has become impossible to mention, let alone review, Fifty Shades Darker without being drawn into a heated debate about the literary merits of its source material. E.L. James’ fan fiction turned erotic romance novel was a national best seller upon its release in 2012, holds the record for the fastest selling paperback in the United Kingdom, and also spawned two equally successful novels; however, the book also caused widespread controversy. Some reviewers were heavily critical of the novel for containing rampant misogyny and for glorifying abusive relationships. Occupying the middle ground in this debate are those who are indifferent to the entire franchise. I must admit to being a member of this group as I have not read any of the books, have little interest in rushing to my nearest bookstore to purchase them, nor have I seen the original film in the series. Some of you may argue that my opinion is practically worthless considering I lack the context of the original film or E.l. James’ novels, but as this review will be focusing on Fifty Shades Darker as an individual piece of cinematic production I feel my opinion is more than justified. So does Fifty Shades Darker stand alone as a great film, one that can survive outside of a larger world or franchise? The answer is a resounding no.
The first thing to say is that despite being adapted from a lengthy novel, E.L. James’ original work is close to six hundred pages, Fifty Shades Darker is not a film that is plot heavy. Screenwriter Niall Leonard is mostly known for his work on television shows including Holby City, Wire in the Blood, and Silent Witness, but his formulaic style does not translate well to the big screen. Leonard’s screenplay focuses on the strained relationship between publisher Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and troubled billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Ana wishes for nothing more than a traditional relationship with Christian, albeit one with some adventurous sexual encounters in both private and public locations, but their relationship is constantly obstructed by Grey’s obsessive need to control every aspect of his life. This obsession includes dominating Ana’s life including who she can speak to, how much time she can spend with her boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), and which of her career opportunites Ana is allowed to take advantage of. Whilst Ana is initially resentful of Christian for trying to control her life it is never made explicitly clear how she feels about being dominated. Instead her opinion on the subject seems to change whenever the script requires it: usually when more than ten minutes have passed since a sex scene. It is not that the dynamic between an abusive male and his wife or girlfriend cannot form the basis of an interesting film, Once Were Warriors and Nil By Mouth have both used this as a central theme, but Leonard’s screenplay never examines the emotional turmoil of the central characters in enough detail. Instead, it appears that Leonard has decided the best way to analyse the relationship between Grey and Ana is for the narrative to adhere to a strict formula of an argument followed by sex, followed by another argument before the couple immediately jump back into bed. The screenplay never deviates from this path and those who have little interest in these characters will find themselves checking their watches well before the hour mark.
There are a few subplots in Fifty Shades Darker, but these are also mishandled by the poor screenplay. One of these plots involves Ana fighting off the unwanted, lecherous advances of her boss Jack Hyde. None of the characters in Fifty Shades Darker are going to win any awards for their depth or characterisation, but it is astounding just how poorly written Hyde is. He shares about three scenes with our heroine, equaling to about twenty minutes of screen time, and during this period the character moves from friendly boss, into pushy suitor, before making the leap into potential rapist. There is no explanation or back story as to why Hyde exhibits this sadistic behaviour so instead we are treated to a few scenes of the stereotypical authoritative jerk that has appeared in everything from Working Girl to The Silence of the Lambs. It is heavily implied that Hyde will play an important adversarial role in Fifty Shades Freed, but by that point you will be beyond caring. Also trying to add drama to the film is Leila Williams (Bella Heathcote). A deeply troubled figure from Christians past, Leila is obsessed with getting back with her former lover at any cost; however, as with Hyde, Leila is reduced to a one-note scorned lover cliché as she shares a similar amount of screen-time with Ana before her plot is swiftly resolved by Grey. Her final sequence is an unintentionally hilarious scene involving domination and submission.
Arguably the main drawing power of Fifty Shades Darker is a morbid curiosity about how the infamous sex-scenes are handled on the big screen. As with the first film the main problem with these sequences is that they are strangely conservative considering the explicit nature of E.L. James original novels. Director James Foley is a legitimately good film-maker who has dealt with disturbing and controversial subjects in the past. Foley’s 1986 film At Close Range, based on the infamous true story of Bruce Johnston, is one of the most under-rated crime thrillers of all time, but his talents are wasted on a film that has clearly been micro-managed in order to appeal to a mass audience. Anyone that is familiar with the more extreme examples of European cinema, such as Gaspar Noe’s works “Love” and “Enter The Void”, or exploitation classic “Baise-Moi” may find themselves disappointed by the highly stylised depictions of sex that are common in the Hollywood studio system. It is also frustrating that Foley does not attempt to push the boundaries of the 18 certificate, but instead appears more than happy to go through the checklist of erotic cinemas greatest hits. There is no sexual encounter in Fifty Shades Darker that has not been repeatedly explored, or exploited, by other film-makers. This list includes genre favourites such as the elevator and the shower (a cinematic trope that was being parodied as early as the 1970s. See Catholic High School Girls in Trouble from legendary parody feature “The Kentucky Fried Movie”). Kim Basinger also makes an appearance in the film; although there is no space in the script for the contents of Mickey Rourke’s fridge.
Fifty Shades Darker is an erotic drama that fails to deliver on eroticism or drama. Instead the only thing that the film can provide, for those who are not fans of the source material, are some unintentionally hilarious moments including some painful dialogue and probably the worst example of product placement since James Bond corrected Vesper Lynd on his Omega watch (for anyone who is wondering the product is Ben and Jerry’s ice cream). Still, the film will undoubtedly be a huge success at the box office, and Foley has already completed filming on Fifty Shades Freed. The only thing we can hope for is that we are not forced to sit through a cinematic adaptation of the follow-up novel Grey, but that remains to be seen.