The erotic bestseller turns up limp in translation, whereas Colin Firth’s action picture proves exciting.
For the first 45 minutes of Fifty Shades of Grey, I was certain the movie was going to wind up a pleasant surprise. As the virginal English lit major Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) comes into contact with this hunky self-made millionaire (Jamie Dornan, the latest computer-generated marvel from WETA studios) and begin a tentative mating dance, you find yourself willing to give the film a certain amount of leeway for approaching its story with a sense of humor. Their courtship is cheeky and the film is breezy because of it, but when it comes time for them to get cheeky, the whole enterprise becomes oddly inert and ineffectual. It’s telling that the scene to generate the most heat comes with the actors fully clothed, a moment where the two characters are seated across a conference table from one another debating the particulars of their arrangement.
Dakota Johnson does yeoman’s work in trying to carry this terribly slight material across the finish line – if the movie can be credited with being watchable or sexy, that burden falls entirely on her shoulders. I’m not going to blame Jamie Doran entirely – Christian Grey is meant to be played at a remove, after all – but would it have been too much to ask for to have the actor vary his emotional output slightly between scenes where he chooses between ties and those scenes where he’s engaged in coitus? For all the brouhaha over the film’s brazen sexuality, the whole thing takes on the patina of a horror film once it reaches that point, psychoanalyzing Mr. Grey’s desire and explaining it away as a result of childhood abuse. Couple that with the actor’s apparent disinterest in each scene set in his ‘red room of pain’ and the whole film takes on a sex-negative connotation that I found distasteful. It’s an erotic movie that appears unsure of whether it wants to be erotic.
There’s a TV pilot worth of incident here stretched out beyond the two hour mark, which becomes painfully obvious as the characters circle the signing of a nonsensical sex contract for the final 40 minutes of screen time. When the film finally reaches the last of its multiple climaxes, ending on a cliffhanger, you’re shocked they managed to turn such paltry material into one film, let alone the first installment of a trilogy. Heaven knows how bored we’ll be by the time The Fifty Shades of Grey Series: Fifty Shades Freed Part 2 finally rolls around, certainly no less so that those involved.
In terms of a movie knowing what it wants to be and executing that plan flawlessly, let me point you in the direction of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. His second adaptation of a Mark Millar comic book title for the big screen, it shares a bratty sensibility with their first such collaboration Kickass. Instead of poking holes in the superhero genre, this time Vaughn is performing a knowing riff on the James Bond/super-spy genre with his tale of a super-secretive branch of operatives acting free of governmental oversight, a league of extraordinary (and extraordinarily lily-white, it should be noted) gentleman codenamed after knights of the roundtable. Each time a member of this sacred fraternity passes in the line of duty the remaining members much bring forth a recruit to replace them, and much of the film is comprised of young Eggsy (the winning Taron Egerton) being brought into the fold by Galahad (Colin Firth, being awesome) just in time to help bring down a lisping megalomaniacal billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson) with a massive world-shaping plan he aims to enact no matter the cost.
Vaughn can make peppy capers in his sleep, and this is no exception. Take the style of his X-Men: First Class and combine it with the anarchic comedic sensibility and hyper-violence of Kickass and you’ve got Kingsman – perhaps his most polished work yet, with a wondrous sense of escalation. The film saves its best set pieces for the end of the film, including an all-timer where Colin Firth fights his way out of a Southern chapel whose entire congregation is attempting to kill him. It has a willingness to embrace the absurdity of its plot (Sam Jackson’s right-hand woman has weaponized prosthetic legs) head on. Where Fifty Shades starts out strong and petered out, the cinematic equivalent of “I’m sorry, this doesn’t normally happen to me,” Kingsman paces itself marvelously, leaving you fully satisfied by its conclusion.