Friday, February 20, 2015


When I was twenty-four I sat around thinking up the great Australian novel while waiting to be discovered. I was still new enough to Melbourne to be affected by the force of its winters and concocted a fantasy wherein I would read every Mills and Boon I could find at the op shop and throw each one I finished into the blazing fireplace. I wanted to be stirred to greatness by tormenting myself with mediocrity. Neither happened. The winter was mild. I got a job which ruled out the idle afternoons.

Oh, and Mills and Boons aren't that bad.

So it was that I paid for a ticket to see this at the ol' Kino on my day off, almost hoping for something that bent over and cried: "ridicule me! I need it!" Well...

We open with the cloudy skies of the Pacific Northwest. A fit young man on his morning jog. Back home he goes into the walk-in wardrobe that Stanley Kubrick designed for him and picks out the pieces of the suit he will wear that day. Meanwhile, a young woman leaves her apartment to interview the man we've just seen. She is cowed to clumsiness by the opulence of Grey House with its dangerous metal and glass edges and the sculpted Hitchcock blondes at every reception desk.

"Mr Grey will see you now," purrs one of them before Ana passes through the office portal and tumbles to her humiliation on the carpet in front of her subject. Christian Grey helps her up and the interview proceeds before thinning to vapour around the solid attraction the two feel for each other.

Back home, Ana, still buzzing from the encounter, is greeted by the flatmate whose flu seems to have just been one of those twenty-four minute things. Mr Grey has, in the time it's taken Ana to drive back to Vancouver from Seattle, emailed all the interview questions answered in full. The next day Ana's at work at the hardware shop when who should turn up? From there it's fate until the breach of trust in the second act and the reconciliation in the finale. Just like a Mills and Boon ... with piss gags.

Except not really.

The courtship of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele has the requisite mix of erotic charm and danger. As Christian closes in on Ana he lets strange things slip into the conversation about written consent and punishment. He doesn't make love, he fucks. He doesn't do romance. This is a kind of steroidal remake of the dashing hunk who breaks into the scene on horseback, as handsome as the devil himself and a laugh to weaken the resolve of the primest ladies of the district. When she created Christian Grey, E.L. James wasn't drawing from de Sade or Sacher Masoch but the common bodice-ripper. She added the notion of a fractured form of love to keep the thread alive and left the tale open to charges of celebrating abusive relationships. Also, mix in some of Samuel Richardson's captive heroine novels (Pamela and Clarissa) and you've got it. The question of consent and its violation is as central to this piece as it is to those.

How does this play out on film? Is it Dominance for Dummies or Cronenberg for Commoners? Actually, pleasantly, more the latter. Sam Taylor Johnson is at the helm. Her Nowhere Boy impressed me greatly by taking the flash-forward fame of its subject for granted, diminishing it with the story of a damaged childhood using some expertly judged aesthetics and fine performances. The most ardent fan finds that they not missing mention of the word Beatles through the entire piece.

In Fifty Shades we again get some strong performances (crucial in a film so dominated by close ups) and a winsome painter's palette. And a strong sense of cinema doesn't hurt. The glider flight feels as thrilling to us watching as it is to the pair on screen. The contract meeting between Ana and Christian is almost laughably extreme in its burnt gold light. We don't fail to notice the crosses refracted in the wine glasses that neither party look at let alone drink from. If there be porn here it is the now well established conversational sense of fetishised interest (food porn, car racing porn, geology porn etc) and it is the porn of riches and opulence. Christian's helicopter flight through the magic hour heavens of the Pacific Northwest has a loving drool to it. This is another throwback to Samuel Richardson, particularly in Pamela when Mr B. boastfully shows himself in his finery before a society engagement, like the callow over-coffered country bumpkin he is. Christian Grey's use of the word incentivise is similarly from the middle management meeting rather than the corridors of power.

Talyor Johnson slows the movement from the speed of the attraction and courtship to a far more stately and considered pace as the middle act decision to sign the contract plays out. This is where it gets interesting and, while we are diverted by the shift from student apartment life and the stink of the street to the rarefied confines of Grey's labyrinthine apartment, we witness the effect each player has on each other and how that is muddling the deal. (Oh, if you pays yer money for a lot of shackles and whips you won't get any for a long while and then only a bit. You should know that going in.)

Performances are strong but in various ways. Jamie Dornan, a kind of young Matthew Barney with Aspergers syndrome, is cold and unbroken until the effects of Ana assail him. But it is Dakota Johnson who impresses most immediately. Her lightning eye rolls, lip bites, helpless giggles, fascination and stern frowns of sudden knowledge and her balance of clumsy self-consciousness and near balletic grace add the blood flow and nervous system to this film that might otherwise have flattened to politeness.

While I have some inkling into why some people might identify sexual pleasure with pain I have never shared it. So, I might have hoped for some insights more profound than Grey's dodgy upbringing and seduction while young, delivered in dialogue. A scene of consensual S&M played against a scarlet palette as a Renaissance mass is sung is beautiful to look at and moves the story ahead but I needed to do some struggling to care about it. If it were more restrained it would lack power. If it were bloodier it would court resistance by all except those who had paid for titilation. The religious music it is set to might well be the moment of  reconciliation of two odd forces, Grey's sense of worship or even a nod to what we're finding out about the Catholic church these days. Whatever, a scene closer to the end, which is more violent and starker, features a far deeper and more disturbing performance from Dornan as Grey. More of that might have taken us closer to the shadows of Videodrome or Blue Velvet. Here, we are reminded of romance fiction.

While there be off-ness hereabouts it's nowhere near the paean to pain that it suggests. This is stripped back from the source material (which might have tipped into pure risibility if filmed literally) and the result is neither a bold middle finger at the honest world nor an examination through fable of one of its troubling corners. There are three books and will probably be another two films. At least Taylor Johnson and Johnson should get some better work outside of the context from it.

Anyway I can't hang around here all afternoon. I have guests over soon and a documentary about the role education played in forming one of the greatest revolutionaries of the twentieth century. That's right, it's Fifty Grades of Che.

Those of you who know me might suspect that I read the book and paid to sit through this film to make that joke. I sing with Anastasia Steele of the novel: Double crap! You know me too well.

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