Fifty Shades the movie seems destined to inspire more eye-rolling than lip-biting, even if there’s no denying that its protagonist is better served by the film than the book. Sam Taylor-Johnson's adaptation of EL James' bajillion-selling 'bonk-buster' book series does a coolly effective job – faithful enough to the even the smallest details to satiate fans, it’s also much leaner, and offers a welcome change of perspective. It's far from the disaster you're expecting to see, to the extent it almost tricks you into thinking it’s better than it is: well-polished it may be, but it’s still a bit of a turd.
You'll know the basics of the plot even if you've never read the spawned-from-Twilight-fan-fiction novels. Moody, Disney-prince-handsome billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) tries to coerce awestruck graduate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) into signing a contract for a BDSM relationship that’ll make her the submissive to his dominant.
The most obvious (and welcome) trim from the book is Anastasia’s inner monologue; the film mercifully spares us a recreation of her inner goddess and reproachful subconscious. It helps transform Ana from a fairly insufferable drip on the page into a really rather likeable romantic lead. It’s a star-making turn from Johnson, turning potential career poison into a major calling card. She beams with likeability, always on hand to puncture the rising pomposity with a well-timed line or an adorkable dance move.
Dornan fares less well. Christian was always going to struggle to be more than a stalker-y cipher, and he’s deprived of the big-screen upsell that Ana gets, leaving Dornan little more to do than glower and show off his (upper) body in a role that’s as thankless as Edward Cullen. It's hard to know what Ana sees in him, beyond his billions and the fact he looks like Jamie Dornan.
The absence of Dornan’s tackle is not really made up for by unsubtle phallic imagery, from Christian’s imposing office block, to his Grey-branded pencils. While frequent, the sex scenes are similarly reserved. The books’ primary (only?) selling point, here the encounters are tamer; the most successful sex scene actually feels a bit spontaneous, but the rest are generally too choreographed and carefully presented to generate real steam.
The playroom interludes aren’t the only thing that’s slick and soulless. Like the book, the film is clearly intended as wish-fulfilment fantasy: the camera pervs over Grey’s hotel-like home, shooting it with the same drooling lenswork that adores his sculpted abs. His car collection and wardrobe get the same treatment. At times it feels more like an interiors magazine than a movie. The supporting cast are basically a collection of Gap models scattered around for set dressing.
What makes Fifty Shades so anticlimactic is that it actually starts promisingly: the light-touch first half is actually pretty funny, to the extent that it feels like a good movie-within-a-movie, a smart parody of the source material. It wills you to laugh at some of the dialogue and scenarios the book wants you to take seriously: a line like “I don’t make love – I fuck. Hard.” was surely designed for ironic whoops rather than genuine cooing.
The tone can’t be sustained though, and by the time you need to invest in the drama, it’s too late to take it seriously. And for newbies unfamiliar with the book, there’s a chance the abrupt ending will leave you feeling short-changed, like the film’s rolled over and kicked you out of bed before you’ve quite finished.