So picture the scene, it’s Friday 13th February, my bessie romance-writing mate and I are sitting in an Islington cinema with about 300 women of all ages (and about five brave boyfriends) ready to see the much talked about… And much maligned… New movie version of EL James’s erotic bestseller…
Ok hold that thought. Because before I go any further I want to say this is IMHO a critic proof movie. Why? Because the people (mostly women I will admit) who loved the book and who found the characters of billionaire dominant Christian Grey and virginal English lit student Anatasia Steele compelling will be looking for something very different in this movie than those people who didn’t read or like the book. I’m not saying the non-fans and their opinions don’t count (after all, some of them may still love this movie!).
And if you pay money for a movie you’re entitled to enjoy it. And to have an opinion if you don’t. But frankly, I’m not really interested in their opinion – and that includes you, snide critic from The New Yorker – and I’m not remotely interested in all the scathing value judgements some people have seen fit to make about those of that enjoyed the books and/or enjoyed the movie either. Because frankly, life’s way too short to have to justify what you enjoy watching/reading/playing etc for your own entertainment (as long as it’s legal, obviously).
So back to myself and my fellow romance writer and FSOG fan in that cinema in Islington… Did we enjoy the experience…? Well we had high expectations, and they were (actually quite surprisingly) not disappointed. We were thoroughly entertained.
So why were we so surprised?
Well, this is a romance people (when I say romance here I mean the genre term as opposed to something that is romantic), and the difficulty with bringing a straight romance to the screen (and why so few of them are) is that it’s not plot led, the key points of the story go on inside the characters heads – especially if you don’t have the quick-fire dialogue supplied by rom-coms. How do you convey that on screen?
That was Sam Taylor Johnson’s challenge and the challenge for the two leading actors – Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson and they rose to it admirably (no pun intended there, folks)… They took it seriously enough to make the characters live but at the same time not so seriously that it became heavy or overly dramatic (or dare I say, cheesy). That’s a very hard trick to pull off, but they did it because the end result here is a slick, sexy, entertaining, overblown romantic fantasy, which also manages to be witty and self aware.
And why were we so entertained?
For starters, I thought Dakota Johnson captured the intrigued, curious, smart and increasingly empowered Ana beautifully. She’s sassy, she’s witty, and she’s also incredibly sweet (not unlike her Mum in Working Girl funnily enough). While Jamie Dornan brought a boyish vulnerability to the enigmatic, sexy and ultimately extremely f****d up Christian. They have a lot of on-screen chemistry and the sex scenes are erotic without being explicit (well, not more explicit than an 18 rating would allow anyway).
Now a lot of people have slammed the BDSM elements in the books and the film as being anti-women, encouraging violence against women or not being indicative of real BDSM relationships… And yet the extreme misogyny in say a film like Inherent Vice is passed off as what? Artistic license… But I digress, the point surely is that both films are fiction.
The difference with FSOG is that this is a story told from a female perspective, it’s a story made to turn women on (and has in droves) and it understands that just as there is a difference between women’s ‘rape fantasies’ and actual rape (go grab yourselves a copy of Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden if you don’t know what this is), there is also a difference between the depiction of a real BDSM relationship and what is depicted here – a fictional BDSM relationship which Christian demands because he is scared of intimacy and cannot bear to be touched and which Ana confronts head on firstly because she is falling for him, but also because it actually turns her on! And yes, people, the readers of FSOG and fans of this movie do actually know that it’s fiction and not reality. Amazing isn’t it!
James’s book took these characters more seriously, but really you couldn’t do that in a movie – a book is an intimate and personal experience for a reader – a movie is not, because you’re viewing it with loads of other herberts, most of whom you don’t know from Adam. Luckily, the movie’s playfulness not just with the characters but also with the book’s iconography admirably help it get over that hump. And explain why there was a round of applause when Christian first appeared and a lot of laughs when he said ‘Laters Baby’ for the first time…!
But anyway, in both the book and the movie, it’s the romance – the journey of Christian and Ana’s relationship (not all of which is romantic BTW) that’s driving the story. Not the sex. The sex is like the action scenes in a James Bond movie, it’s important to the story only in so far as this is where the relationship changes in some way…
That said, this is supposed to be a sexy movie and what I loved was the eroticism and playfulness in the sex scenes. There is one particular scene where Christian spanks Ana, but it’s very clear that they are both getting off on the moment. There’s also the witty sexually charged scene when they are negotiating the notorious ‘contract’ – when Dakota’s Ana is both naive and bold while Dornan’s Christian is both frustrated and captivated.
Not at all playful is the scene at the end of the film…. Again, the actors and the filmmakers got this scene exactly right (for me).. Even though Ana consents beforehand, in fact encourages it, because she is curious to know exactly how far Christian ‘wants’ to go, and doesn’t use her ‘safe word’ during the incident which would have ended it, there’s no doubt that she is a victim here… The scene is dark, it’s disturbing, it’s not sexy. Christian goes way too far and Ana confronts him and walks out on him… If this were real would we still consider him to be a romantic character? Um no, we wouldn’t.
But if James Bond were real would we still consider him a hero after he had shot, garrotted, stabbed, blown up, etc a load of living breathing actual people? Oh, but wait a minute… They’re not real. We can handle the fact that JB is a mass murderer because we know he is a good guy who has to kill all those people to get that ticking time bomb out of the Houses of Parliament (or whatever)… Just like we can handle what Christian does to Ana because she stands up to him, and because this is going to reveal something to her that will eventually make him much more vulnerable than she is. And if you love romance it’s those essential pivotal turning points in a relationship, the moments when your hero or heroine is forced to confront or reveal their greatest fears/or inner conflicts and vulnerabilities that is the vicarious pleasure you seek.
If you don’t ‘get’ that, if that’s not something you get vicarious pleasure from, you’re probably not going to enjoy this movie the way I did… But if you did, you just might be one of the people clapping at the end with a great big smile on your face thinking how you can’t wait to see the next film, instead of yawning… Or cursing, Or running to FB to say what a load of exploitative, disturbing crap you thought it all was!
Oh, and there’s also a great soundtrack. Beyonce’s reworking of Crazy in Love and Haunted capture the movie’s glorious guilty pleasure tone perfectly… Not that I felt remotely guilty mind you for enjoying it.
Certificate 18. Runtime 125 mins. Directors Sam Taylor-Johnson.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.