Fifty Shades of Grey is the first R-rated film I have watched in theaters, and the reason I chose to watch this film is very simple; curiosity. Now this film is a bit hard to discuss in details without spoilers so I will break up my review into two parts; the no-spoiler version and the with-spoiler version. Here is my no-spoiler version. And if you plan on reading the with-spoiler version, that review contains mature themes and is not suitable for individuals under the age of 18.
Whilst the story is a bit disturbing, the film is rather well made, especially if creating an atmosphere of tension and unease was the intention (and I'm pretty sure that was intentional). The soundtrack was well selected, and Dakota Johnson does a really good job portraying the Anastasia from the book, and as much as I disagree with Mr Grey's character and behaviour, I can't really hate or dismiss this film. In fact, if anything this film has taught me, is that the world of BDSM, as well as being part of an abusive relationship, isn't for me. I won't recommend it as a must-watch but if you feel bold and want to step outside your comfort zone to learn about something different, this may be worth one viewing.
If I had to sum up Fifty Shades with one word, it is uncomfortable. The story is uncomfortable. The pacing is uncomfortable. The themes are uncomfortable. It isn't exotic enough for a high-budget fetish film, but not quite grounded to the real world for a romantic drama.
I remember the first time I came across the book in the 'New arrivals' aisle in my local Kmart store. Having not heard about it on the Internet yet, I actually thought it was referring to moral greyness. Only after I opened the book and scan a few chapters did I realize its more erotic themes that is catering to a very, very different audience than me. Actually I'm still not sure who this book was aimed at, but it perplexes me how it gained so much attention when its fan-fiction off of another bafflingly successful book series. I couldn't stand reading the book at the time, and to this day I haven't read it through, but when a film adaptation was announced, I figured it would probably be a somewhat tamer, more digestible, and watered down version that I could handle.
One of the biggest criticisms I've heard about the book is that it poorly represents the BDSM community. I am not familiar with nor have, shall I say, this particular inclination, but the film certainly invests a substantial amount of time explaining to the audience the structure and culture of BDSM. This feels like an 'Introduction to BDSM' film because we are learning about this world through Ana's own inexperience, and the disturbances and confusion she faces is perhaps symbolic of what the uninitiated audience would feel too.
Based on a quick bit of Wikipedia research, the contract aspect and the imposition of limits in the film are probably the bits about BDSM that I think they got most correct, but it feels as though Ana was involved with a lone wolf practitioner rather than entering a community where she could have learned from other submissives. Learning about BDSM online as Grey suggested Ana to do is probably ineffective as well because it is very likely what she would find online is more BDSM-themed pornography over legitimate BDSM content (unless she stumbled onto an actual BDSM forum).
Yes. BDSM does not equal porn. This is a controversial view but I think it is important to make this distinction (also why I avoided using that P word earlier). Pornography is a tool used by some to achieve physical gratification or assist in masturbation, but you don't form a relationship with the subject of pornographic content. BDSM, as far as I have worked out, is more about the relationship than the spanking or other physical activities that are associated with the term. Humans are visual thinkers, which means it is easier to accept BDSM as just 'another type of porn' and classify any use of whips or chains or belts as part of a BDSM dungeon. And if that is our only judgement about it, then we are probably amongst those with surface-level understanding that made Fifty Shades so popular in the first place.
So in this aspect, I think this film does stay true to the essence of BDSM. It is consensual, connective and interactive. You are not just watching thinly veiled porn with a big budget.
I don't really have too much to say about the character of Ana. Other than her being the innocent sweet girl who falls in love with the wrong person and essentially goes on an adventure of sorts, she is quite a bland character. I mean, Dakota Johnson who plays Ana is a very, very attractive lady, and I think she interprets the book character fine. But honestly, we know very little about her outside of her developments with Christian Grey. She apparently studies Literature but we never see her reading a book or quoting from her favourite novel. She is apparently top of her class but often looks naive. And what young person in the 21st century can afford to study at a top American University, but not own a laptop? Ana as a character is just a premise; a surrogate for us to use to explore and learn about this other world we don't see in our daily lives. Because of that, she doesn't feel like a real person but simply playing a role in a modern parable.
Now this is the character that I really disliked and would be the main reason this film gets a fairly low score from me. Just as BDSM does not equal porn, practicing BDSM is not the same as being in an abusive relationship. Mr Grey is into BDSM, but he is also an abusive lover. While his character was written to be a control freak, I think what he does extend beyond domination. He is also manipulative in how he entices Ana prior to the signing of the contract. He does make effort to allow her to learn about and understand his world, and it's pretty clear he is attracted to her, but even before he mentions to her about his 'singular interest' he was already trying to steer her life towards him and creating excuses and opportunities to make her in want.
The actual spanking and whipping doesn't seem to make him as happy as being able to intimidate her outside of that chamber. That to me is beyond role-playing or escapism. He is literally forcing himself on her emotionally by reminding her that he is breaking his own rules to keep her invested, but then tells her the final stage of their relationship requires them to strip away all those emotions he himself incited in her.
The dangerous thing about his character is that it is an attempt to blur what is caring for a loved one, versus what is controlling how someone lives outside of the dungeon. Ana is an objective for him. He has failed to be the submissive in a previous BDSM contract, and appears to over-compensate as the dominant in this one by blanketing over Ana's heart and mind even before she consented. He isn't just good at exercising control at other, he finds a despicable pleasure in it.
Personality aside, I also find it a bit unbelievable a 27-year old would have so much experience and apparent maturity in BDSM, especially if he is an entrepreneur who is as successful as the film sells it. Either ways, my hatred of how he represents BDSM actually helped me better understand what BDSM is not.
Nonetheless, just to be clear, I don't think his relationship with Ana was at all healthy. What Christian had for Ana was lust and opportunity. I never got the sense that he truly loved her or thought about her needs. He just knew how to play the cards so that she would unwittingly wander into his dungeon and let him have his way with her. It is a disturbing type of 'achievement unlocked' thinking which, when applied to a scenario as unusual as in Fifty Shades, lends itself to misdirected blame at the glorification of BDSM, instead of simply recognising that he might just be a manipulative, self-centered incubus. His emotional whips and chains are more harmful than the ones in his special room.
I don't really mind a movie like this popping up once in a while, especially if it stirs healthy discussion and better understanding about the different sub-communities that really do exist in our societies, as opposed to simply exploiting and romanticising fictional creatures like Vampires and Zombies. I didn't fully get into the movie and felt like looking away quite a few times (I just don't like watching other people having sex, especially in high definition). But rather than simply distancing ourselves from these ideas and experiences at the outset, I found it a lot more fruitful to take that bold step and visit those spaces at least once to gain some understanding as to why they do what they do.
Of course this film would not have been appropriate for children to watch, but even us as adults are often very afraid or unwilling to try and accept a more shaded reality; that there is more to things like BDSM than simplified definitions of perversion. We shouldn't be making fast conclusions that its members were probably 'scarred as kids'. We shouldn't mentally project them as having secondary tastes and unhealthy relationships relative to the norm. It is because we choose to judge and reject movies or stories like these before we even watch it that our society is so segregated.
After watching this film, I realised that my past perception of BDSM is likened to how 'normal' teenagers used to view Goths, or Dungeons and Dragons players, or a more relevant example, the LGBT community. If you enter their world with an open-mind, you may still end up feeling disgusted or in disagreement with its ideas, but at least the choice is informed. No one says you must stay after a visit!
I won't endorse the film beyond the price of admission, but I'm somewhat glad I saw it as it gave me a deeper appreciation of BDSM even if the film really shows more of having sex than actually what a functional BDSM relationship looks like (probably saved for the sequels). As long as the experience is consensual, and helps build a bridge from the mainstream to the fringe, it is a fine movie to sate your curiosity and make you somewhat more world-aware. But do keep the R rating.