Romance novelist Heidi Rice gets to grips with S&M sequel Fifty Shades Darker starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as EL James's kinky couple.

Fifty Shades Darker Dakota Johnson Jamie Dornan.

As a romance reader and writer, it’s probably no surprise that I’m out and proud about having enjoyed reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I also enjoyed watching the original movie

Yes, it got a load of Razzie Awards, but I have a sneaking suspicion these may have been voted for by people who wouldn’t appreciate a romance novel if it slapped them over the head…

That’s not to say there weren’t problems with that first movie – but I think Sam Taylor-Johnson did a great job of conveying the fantasy elements of the story and giving the film a distinctive look – she respected her material…

Remember folks, this is romantic fantasy. It’s not supposed to be taken seriously, it’s pure escapism. Whether you find it hot or not is a matter of personal taste of course…

Fifty Shades Darker Dakota Johnson

“Brooding, traumatised”

But one huge factor Taylor Johnson had in her favour, IMHO was the casting. Particularly of Dakota Johnson who brings a refreshing likability to what is at times a fairly daft role (if we’re going to take it seriously, which we’re not) – of the virgin student with enough emotionally maturity to fix a young and thoroughly broken billionaire.  Jamie Dornan too, for me, encapsulated a lot of what Christian Grey is about – brooding, traumatised and ultimately emotionally stunted.

So.. I’m not going to lie to you, when I heard Taylor-Johnson had been replaced by James Foley (whose big work was back in the 90s) and the scriptwriters replaced with EL James’ husband I was somewhat concerned about Fifty Shades Darker… The second in the trilogy of films.

Fifty Shades Darker Dakota Johnson Jamie Dornan
“Less kinky and more playful”

So were my fears justified?

Well, yes, in some ways. The script is a bit pants. Partly because the film seems to want to have the story both ways, to concentrate on the developing romance between Christian and Ana – which despite that title is now less kinky and more playful as Christian begins to let go of some of his many ‘issues’ – while also adding a daft thriller element, involving Ana’s new boss Jack Hyde.

To be fair, James’s second book had the thriller element too, but in the film we get no build up and no pay off either with the thriller sub plot, so it’s frankly a total mess… Spoiler alert: Fifty Shades Darker finishes with a dark, shadowy shot of Hyde setting him up as the villain for round 3 which left me and I’m sure most of the rest of the audience thinking WTH?!

Foley also has none of the wonderfully OTT imagery that made Taylor-Johnson’s first film such a guilty pleasure. This is at turns a very prosaic and yet rather coy handling of the material. And as usual with 18 films, we get to see lots of her and not a lot of him… Which is kind of a shame because let’s face it the main target audience for this film is heterosexual women…

Then again, the main strength of the first film is still there. Namely Dakota Johnson’s refreshing Ana (there’s a cute tribute to Dakota’s mum Melanie Griffith, see if you can spot it) and Jamie Dornan looks much more relaxed too, so his Christian is a lot less stiff (no pun intended).

Fifty Shades Darker Jamie Dornan

“A guilty pleasure”

Sadly though, this is the film where we want to see Christian and Ana actually start to fall in love. Ana challenges Christian to give her more, but again the script fails us. Because it’s all a bit of a mess….

Both Marcia Gay Hardin as Christian’s adopted mother, and Kim Basinger as his former lover are totally wasted, their parts so cut down that they are reduced to cardboard cut outs – when in the books they can explain a lot about Christian’s problems. And while Johnson and Dornan work overtime to inject the proceedings with humour – because surprise, surprise, folks there is actually quite a lot of humour in the books – very little of that is actually in the script.

All of that said, I still enjoyed this movie… But I think it was greatly helped by the two stars, my enjoyment of the original stories and also the fabulous venue where I went to see it… If you’re going to go for a guilty pleasure like Fifty Shades Darker, I’d highly recommend one of the Everyman cinemas, because not only can you share a sofa – putting you into your own little world – but they serve wine in bottles… And we needed it.

Certificate 18. Runtime 118 mins. Director James Foley

Fifty Shades Darker is on general release.

Romance novelist and film reviewer Heidi Rice publishes her latest novel, Vows They Can’t Escape, this month and teaches online courses in Writing Hot Romance at The Professional Writing Academy.