In the past few years, adaptations of novels like Cloud Atlas, The Great Gatsby, and Inherent Vice have been preceded by talk of whether these books might, due to their complexity or ambition or internal qualities, qualify as “unfilmable.” Consider, though, the challenges faced by the filmmakers behind the adaptation of international bestselling trilogy that begins with Fifty Shades of Grey: an erotic romance, by most accounts terribly written, that began life as Twilight fan-fiction, and during which very little appears to actually happen apart from sex scenes that, if faithfully reproduced, would instantly garner the dreaded NC-17 rating. A moment of appreciation, then, that the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey can, however briefly and vaguely, resemble any kind of life on this planet at all. And, for that matter, that the film, opening today, can include far more sex and nudity than almost any wide release movie of the decade so far.
That’s not to say that it’s especially smutty; director Sam Taylor-Johnson has made a relatively tasteful BDSM romance, too chaste, even, for a male lead willing to go as frontal as the female lead. Just as Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), international businessman of indeterminate business, exercises “control in all things,” Taylor-Johnson makes some formal decisions in the flirtation between Grey and graduating college senior Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson): the pair meet early in the film, but Taylor-Johnson keeps them visually separate, first in one-shots and then by obscuring one face or the other, creating a subtle sense of build-up. Their full faces—specifically, noticeably their eyes—don’t actually share a frame until just before their first kiss. Taylor-Johnson also composes some striking silhouetted wide shots, like a red-bathed one of Ana and Christian negotiating the terms of his dominant-sex contract. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the sexiest and funniest-on-purpose scene in the movie.
Elsewhere, the movie’s immaculate veneer smothers out any possibility for rich internal life—and sometimes external life, too. Even at her most college-casual, the supposedly mousy Ana appears as well-manicured as a book-cover heroine. Rather than the intended three years younger than her actual age, Johnson actually looks about three years older—like a 28-year-old with only the mildest virginal reticence. Even her welcome jokes come out a little sleepy, like she’s slowing herself down to the movie’s time-killing deliberateness, rather than daring to speed ahead. Still, she acquits herself well as the human half of the couple; Dornan, on the other hand, looks rigid, and not necessarily in the romance-novel sense. He takes off his shirt in such self-guided slow-motion that he seems borderline inhuman, like one of those awkward supporting actors in a Twilight movie.
But what can he really do with Christian Grey, a monument to the principle that a man’s creepy aggression depends entirely on hotness? When Christian pushes off Ana’s drunk friend Jose from a mild advance, it’s supposed to be romantic—but instead of heat, he’s radiating rich-guy smugness. Despite the story’s hints of a dark past that explains his fetish, his BDSM tendencies look an awful lot like an all-encompassing excuse: Of course he can show up inside Ana’s apartment unannounced without a key; he’s a dominant! Plus, he’s got a helicopter. Aren’t flying methods of conveyance the sexiest? Fifty Shades of Grey sure thinks so; in case Ana gets bored of the helicopter rides (as if that’s possible!), Christian also takes her for a ride in a mini-plane. I’m not sure if this is what is meant by sex tourism. What do Christian and Ana talk about, apart from the clauses of their possible sex contract? Well, there’s the matter of when she might sign said contract, or what they might do when said contract is signed, or why Christian requires a contract in the first place. All-consuming lust, as it turns out, is not inherently interesting.
As a softcore romance, Fifty Shades isn’t the howler that prose excerpts from the books hint at. Sometimes, it’s even sexy, and no one can accuse Taylor-Johnson of condescending to her audience. If anything, she’s too deferential. As the first installment of a trilogy, the movie’s token push-pull between dom and burgeoning sub can’t even pretend to resolve, apart from a crisp rhyming with an early scene—it’s just another well-produced fan tease. In their way, adaptations of bestselling book series have become as ritualized as Christian’s preferred methods of sex.