Grey is the dullest colour: a review of ‘Fifty Shades’

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This would make a great poster for Fight Club 2.

CW: Sexual abuse, domestic abuse, stalking, virginity myth

I’ll admit it, I was curious.

I was first curious when the books came out, and almost every woman I know went batshit crazy for them – even the women who didn’t ‘do’ reading. I tried to read the books, got a few pages in, and gave up. I have no tolerance for authors describing their character’s appearance by having them look in a mirror, and I have no tolerance for describing everything as ‘grey’ or ‘steel grey’ over and over again, hammering the message into my brain that LOOK, THE TITLE HAS GREY IN IT AND THE MAIN CHARACTER’S SURNAME IS GREY AND THE OTHER MAIN CHARACTER’S SURNAME IS STEELE WHICH IS ALSO KIND OF A SHADE OF GREY.

I get it, E.L. James. And I cannot continue with your piece of shit book.

So I read Jenny Trout’s incredibly funny and also depressing reviews of the ‘Fifty Shades‘ trilogy. This was far more bearable as I got Jenny’s commentary alongside the story, breaking up the tedious and often offensive prose. This was no small task, as Jenny is thorough in her review technique – reading her articles on the entire series took a couple of weeks, at the rate of an hour minimum per day. Her reviews include a wide range of quotes and close textual analysis, and since I’ve held conversations with fans of the series where I remember more of the books than they do. Do I have too much time on my hands? Yes. That is definitely a fair assessment. Jenny’s writing is also highly entertaining, so it wasn’t as mammoth a task as could be expected and I recommend reading the reviews if you too are curious but aren’t actually able to stomach reading the series yourself.

Having sort of ‘read’ the books, and in full knowledge of the plot, characters, etc, I can safely say that they make up a poorly written, surprisingly dull and unsurprisingly unappealing account of an abusive relationship. With that in mind, I decided to boycott the film. Why give money to something which I worried legitimised domestic abuse and encouraged the viewpoint that as long as you were rich and classy, you could be a controlling butthole and it was totes sexy?

But then I got curious again.

I decided on the excuse that I would review ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ for this blog, making it a feminist exercise, and off I went with two friends (called Friend V and Friend R from this point on). We prepared thoroughly by drinking a bottle of wine before we went in, drinking a second bottle of wine during the film, and finishing most of a third after the film (to deal with the shock). Please consider, therefore, that I was increasingly hammered throughout the showing.

The Quite Good

  • Dakota Johnson’s acting. Bless her cotton socks, Dakota Johnson acts her butt off in this film and manages to make Ana (a painfully two-dimensional and irritating character a la Bella Swan in the books) a somewhat likeable, if stupendously naive and passive, woman. I feel like someone should have gently taken her aside, like they clearly did with Jamie Dornan, and told her that her performance would make literally no difference to ticket sales and that she could dial it in ‘til the cows came home. Apart from the interview at the start, which is worse than one starring Natalie Bennett, she is genuinely quite good.
  • The film is quite funny at times. It’s not supposed to be, but I’m going to count it as a positive because it made the experience far more entertaining. It’s painfully obvious wherever E.L. James has refused to let director Sam Taylor-Johnson cut a line of dialogue from the books, resulting in lines like, “Laters, baby” (mild cringe from the audience) and “I’m fifty shades of fucked up” (horrified wailing from the audience).
  • There is a hot bit for about half a second where Christian takes a bite of Ana’s toast. I think it’s because he smiles as he does it, and briefly looks like a friendly, human male.
  • Beyonce’s singles on the soundtrack are the bomb dot com.
  • Ana has a big ol’ bush. Hurray! Viva la bush!
  • A cultural phenomenon with female sexuality at its centre is something I’d usually consider a good thing. It’s refreshing to see women only discussing their sexual pleasure and I’d hope this would make society less, well, prudish. We have a strong stomach for violence but have a strange aversion to seeing sexuality, unless it’s in a commodified context (see: popstars flashing their fanjitas in order to sell records). Saying that, and please see Bad below for further details, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is the ultimate commodification of sexuality.
  • The film is similar to the ‘Twilight’ films (in approximately 99% of ways, actually – overlooking the obviously similar plot, the first ‘Twilight’ and ‘Fifty Shades’ are the only Hollywood films in recent history to have a female author, scriptwriter and director) in that a large audience of women, many of whom have been waiting for the films to come out for quite a while and are therefore in a state of heightened excitement, are trapped together for two hours to watch a load of garbage. This results in lots of calling out, whooping, overreactions, etc which make for a pretty fun viewing experience. ‘Fifty Shades’ is actually better in that the audience are also mostly drunk (it was basically a sea of rosé bottles). However, the ‘Twilight’ films are much better (seriously) and so there were less “Woooo!”s and more heckles during this film. Also, more overt snoring. Which brings me onto one of the biggest criticisms of the film…

The Bad

  • This is the most boring film I have ever seen.

The only competition would probably be an art film about Kurt Cobain’s death that ended with his ghost climbing a ladder to heaven. It was so boring that a women two rows over fell asleep about twenty minutes in and snored loudly throughout the performance. No-one woke her up, because it was obvious that she was the luckiest person in the cinema. When we left, I heard over and over again from the cinema-goers around me, “That was so, so boring.” The problem is, it’s a two hour long film with fourteen minutes of sex scenes (half of those were also boring – I’m talking slow sex in the missionary position, in a bed, with no talking or kinkiness to speak of), and the plot is basically ‘boy meets girl, boy is a dick, they have sex, boy is a dick, they have sex’ etc.

  • Jamie Dornan’s acting.

Hayden Christensen would beat this guy at charades.

christian grey
At his most relaxed and emotive.
  • Christian Grey is not sexy. That is a fairly big flaw in a film which is supposed to be the ultimate splooge-fest. I propose they remake the film, with the obvious changes concerning consent, but also by replacing Jamie Dornan with either a) sexily competant Voldemort look-a-like, Yanis Varoufakis or b) Alec Baldwin, post-time machine. As Friend V pointed out throughout:

“I’ve been more turned on watching Professor Snape.”

“I was definitely more aroused in Drive.”

“One of his eyes is much bigger than the other and it’s very distracting.”

  • Rita Ora makes one of the strangest cameos ever as Christian’s sister. She appears to have wandered out of the 1920s, and inexplicably speaks French. It was like they gave her the cameo and she thought, “Let’s act the arse out of this, Rita, this is your chance!” and came up with a crazy backstory that involved Louise Brooks on a mission to infiltrate the Grey household by posing as a French maid.
  • It’s over two hours long.
  • ‘Fifty Shades’ is less actual porn and more weird consumer porn – my friends who are interested in the fight against capitalism and classism would find it almost as enraging as my feminist buddies. Sex in this world can only occur when expensive things are involved – expensive settings, expensive costumes, expensive props. The limitless tie-ins of sex toys, teddy bears, ties, make-up, etc show what below-the-belt action the people involved are really interested in (your purse, pervert). Would ‘Fifty Shades’ as a story be sexy to people without the wealth surrounding it? Would people watch it if Christian Grey was an Assistant Manager at McDonalds, who introduces Ana to the world of BDSM from within a damp studio flat in Croydon? From the start, Christian is also defensive against claims that he did anything other than build his business from the ground up, alone, despite his young age. But he was adopted by an incredibly wealthy family as a child – privilege, yo.
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Yeurgh.
  • Christian would definitely have some discrimination lawsuits on his hands from solely hiring attractive, 20-something blondes.
  • Friend R:

“I just remembered the worst bit in the film.

…It was when he smelled her knickers.”

  • The only non-white person in this film (apart from 1920s Rita Ora) is Hispanic and portrayed as a creepster who tries to sexually assault Ana. Yeah.

The Bleak

  • There is some creepy, creepy virginity worship in this film. I thought the whole ‘A woman’s worth is in her virginity’ was confined to the pages of  Mills & Boon novels, but ‘Fifty Shades’ isn’t ready to let the bullshit go. It manages to glorify the status of virginity for women, within minutes of letting us know that Christian’s had nineteen live-in sexual partners alone. Doubly creepy was the outpouring of emotion shown (well, for Christian) when Ana reveals she’s a virgin, but then he’s like, “Well, let’s sort this out then”, like her hymen is a blocked toilet he’s been meaning to get around to.

And without further ado, let’s get to the bread and butter of why ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is unequivocally (thanks, Twilight) garbage:

  • This film glorifies an abusive relationship and tries to turn it into something aspirational.

Christian is basically Patrick Bateman-lite. A psychopath. The film likes to weave the tale that because he’s a multi-millionaire, it’s classy and sexy and totally not terrifying, but I’ve lived with a psychopath multi-millionaire, weirdly, and trust me, the money does not enrich (pun intended) the experience.

Let’s look at some of the evidence that a relationship with Christian Grey is not very much fun.

  1. He appears uninvited in Ana’s flat whenever he’s unhappy with her. Ana barely reacts to this, but it’s full on serial killer behaviour.
  2. It’s possible that Christian is sponsored by Alcoholics Anonymous, because whenever 21 year old Ana decides to let her hair down and have a drink, he appears in a rage to remove her from the scene. In one of the more ridiculous scenes from the film, Christian throws a tantrum when Ana reveals she’s going to visit her mother, then shows up at the bar where Ana and her mother are drinking despite her asking him not to (as she needs space – way to have no respect, Christian) and then he takes the cocktail out of her hand and berates her for drinking too many Cosmos with her mother. I am mean seriously, if you can’t drink with your mother, who can you drink with? Ana’s Mum does something ridiculous like calls him a keeper – my Mum would’ve slipped off to the toilet and quietly called the police.
  3. Christian is incredibly jealous and possessive. This doesn’t just apply to Ana’s mother; every time a man stands within fifty feet of Ana, Christian’s weirdly oversized right eye starts twitching.
  4. His moods switch at the drop of a hat, from charming to cold. He takes her to a coffee shop for a date, then drags her out ten minutes in, then kisses her outside, then ditches her again. At this point, I think they had been together for about twelve hours. This is basically the case for the entire film: one second he’s taking her on a helicopter ride, the next with the beating. He’ll whisk her away from her graduation, surprise her with a car, spank her and then leave her in tears. No wonder Ana’s in constant turmoil throughout the film.
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Just a happy, go-lucky gal.
  1. He sells her car without her consent and buys her a computer so he can track what she’s doing on it.
  2. In a scene which is completely glossed over, Christian makes Ana see a doctor of his choosing and puts her on his preferred contraception.
  3. At the end of the film, Christian whips the shit out of Ana with dead, shark eyes while she sobs. It’s a pretty hot scene (it’s not). There was obviously going to be some physical stuff in this film, but it’s genuinely disturbing seeing Ana force herself through most of it in the hopes that Christian will take her on a date “like normal people” (her words) afterwards. The franchise has drawn criticism from BDSM fans because of the way it portrays the lifestyle, and one of the main criticisms is that Christian seems to approach BDSM from a place of anger rather than sensuality. I think this is why it’s so disturbing; in one scene he finishes an angry phone call to a work colleague then orders Ana into the ‘red room of pain’ for punishment, his fists clenched in anticipation of taking his rage out on her. That’s not safe, or erotic.

So there you have it! An extensive review which saves you £8 and over two hours of your life. You’re welcome. I was hoping that the dullness of this film would result in the trilogy fizzing out, a la ‘The Northern Lights’, but I think the fact it made $93 million in its first four days means we will actually get the sequels.

A pity. I think my curiosity’s been thoroughly satisfied.


–  Jade Slaughter is editor of The Jar Belles and has written for The F Word, Parallel and Litro magazines. Follow her on Twitter: @msjadeslaughter.

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