The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Fifty Shades of Grey

I have so many conflicted feelings about Fifty Shades of Grey that it's hard to know where to start. There's a dilemma here. The filmmakers didn't create this material; they're simply adapting E.L. James's novel. And on a technical level, they've done so well. It's a professionally-crafted, visually atmospheric movie. But the material itself is so fundamentally disturbing that I wish they hadn't bothered. Even worse, they've done little, if anything, to soften the stuff that's so creepy. I don't think I've ever said this before, but I felt dirty after watching this film.

Dakota Johnson plays Anastasia Steele, a virginal young woman who meets powerful, wealthy businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She's attracted to his rugged good looks and confident demeanor. He's intrigued by her naivety. They begin a courtship in which he deflowers her before revealing his big secret. Christian is into hardcore bondage. Specifically, he's a “dominant” who wants Anastasia to be his “submissive.” He claims that this is the only way he can be with a woman, and he asks her to sign a contract forcing her to give herself over completely to his will, including the right to punish her physically as he deems necessary.

The surface problems with Fifty Shades of Grey are irritating, but not necessarily fatal. There's a silliness in the way Christian tries to convince Anastasia to go along with his sexual proclivities, as though it's business as usual. She stares wide-eyed at his collection of whips, harnesses, and blindfolds. In one scene, she negotiates her contract and asks him to remove all references to “vaginal fisting” and “butt plugs.” I'm not sure even Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis could make this sort of stuff feel anything other than titter-worthy.

While the two leads give perfectly adequate performances, both are slightly miscast. Christian Grey needed to be portrayed by an actor with a forceful presence – the kind of performer who doesn't even need to say anything to fill up the space onscreen. (A younger Daniel Day-Lewis, to repeat a name.) Jamie Dornan has too much of a sensitive-guy quality to make that work. Dakota Johnson, meanwhile, oozes too much sexuality to ever be fully credible as the dowdy, innocent Anastasia.

Again, those things are no big shakes. No, the real problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is much more disturbing. At its core, this is a rape fantasy. Rape, of course, is a crime of anger and control. Christian Grey has a lot of anger about something in his past (which the film glosses over). He wants to control Anastasia for his own pleasure, with no real concern for her feelings. He gets off on the idea of punishing her in a painful way. Anastasia is, to him, someone he can exert his power over. Making her helpless is his ultimate turn-on.

For this reason, the movie is really about whether or not Anastasia will allow herself to be raped by Christian. I find that to be a nauseating idea. E.L. James and, by extension, the film think there's something kind of hot about it. The bondage scenes are staged as though they're intended to be arousing, albeit in a slightly dangerous way. In other words, the audience is supposed to get a rise from this scenario in which an influential man wants to rape a young woman and she kind of wants it. Really, that's appalling. It might have been different if Fifty Shades of Grey had anything of value to say about the subject matter, but it doesn't. (The abrupt non-ending that left my audience yelling at the screen doesn't count.) Films like Secretary prove you can insightfully explore dominant/submissive relationships, while others like Shame demonstrate that dark sexual impulses can be depicted with psychological merit. Fifty Shades just uses the idea of rape to get a cheap thrill.

Also of note is that Dakota Johnson is often fully nude here, while Jamie Dornan never shows more than his rear end. In that way, the movie mirrors its own subject matter, making the female submissive.

I'd be lying if I said my attention was not held by Fifty Shades of Grey. For better or worse, I watched it intently. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson certainly is not afraid to show some bondage techniques that, to the best of my knowledge, have never been seen in a major studio release before. It's clear, though, that were it not based on a massive best-seller, no one would have made such a thematically reprehensible movie. If you think rape is a turn-on, this is the film for you. Personally, I'm perfectly happy not to be included in your ranks.

( 1/2 out of four)

Fifty Shades of Grey is rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.

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