Fifty Shades of Grey: Chemistry, quality missing in film adaptation

It takes two to tango — one to lead and one to follow — in the feature film adaptation of E.L. James’ best-selling erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

The follower, Dakota Johnson as the naïve and bookish Anastasia, is a breath of fresh air anytime she appears on screen and truly gives 110 percent of herself to every scene no matter how much clothing she wears.

However, the leader, Jamie Dornan as the charismatic and mysterious billionaire Christian, can’t dance to save his life.

In relationship-heavy two-handers like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” it’s important that both leads utilize the other’s performance to help elevate their own, but Johnson is acting against a brick wall.

There’s only so much an actor can do when given nothing to work with. It’s what makes Johnson’s honest portrayal of the loss of innocence more noteworthy.

It’s easy to tell that Dornan isn’t anywhere close to being the first choice for the role, as the Irish-born actor can’t seem to find any depth to a man hiding dark secrets.

He struggles to identify with the character and placates that lack of connection — and subsequent lack of chemistry with Johnson — by softening each of his lines to make them sound more attractive.

Whispering can be sexy, but not when it’s the only tone of voice used over a two-hour period.

Just as miscast as Dornan is sophomore director Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose lack of vision clouds any real character development in either lead and limits the film to late-night Cinemax fodder.

There’s no creativity in the film’s construction or development as if the actors directed themselves.

It’s ironic (and rather sad) that “Fifty Shades of Grey” scored the biggest opening weekend in history by a female director at just under $91 million.

Passionate filmgoers angry about the omission of Ava DuVernay from best director accolades for “Selma” need to be just as upset, if not more so, that Taylor-Johnson’s pedestrian, banal effort will be considered a greater success by Hollywood standards than the Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic based solely on box office revenue.

The “Fifty Shades” film is simply a tent pole in service of a financial empire — a means to further line investors’ pocketbooks through the licensing of everything from lingerie, oils and wine to stuffed teddy bears with handcuffs in their paws. 

“Fifty Shades” doesn’t need to be good to feed the beast, just buzz-worthy enough to draw interest and push product on the most ardent “Shade”-oholics.

There’s about 20 minutes worth of sex scenes in “Fifty Shades,” significantly toned down from the source material. Taylor-Johnson’s film sticks mostly to topless and rear nudity along with some glimpses of hair in places usually not shown on the big screen.

Who would have guessed that a movie about bondage and dominance could be so mundane?

For a book about sex, the film adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t so much about the BDSM lifestyle as it is an inferior study of compulsion and control.

What doesn’t work most about this lackluster, cookie-cutter, sex-by-numbers escapade is the lack of character development, leaving viewers simply ogling Ana and Christian rather than identifying with them.

It could very well be that Dornan can’t handle a complex character, but even the most average thespian could act circles around Dornan’s bland, one-note, uninspired whisper performance.

Marcia Gay Harden is largely wasted in a throwaway cameo role as Christian’s mother.

On the good side, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey — who shot “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “Atonement” — does a wonderful job lighting and framing each scene.

Additionally, the film’s soundtrack boasts an impressive selection of top artists, including multiple tracks from Beyonce, whose remix of “Crazy in Love” is top notch, and Annie Lennox, whose cover of the classic song, “I’ll Put A Spell On You” at the film’s outset fools viewers that they’ll see a better movie than they ultimately get.

As is the case in many other genres, independent films like “Blue Valentine” and “Secretary” do a much better job balancing the emotional and physical of psychologically challenging romantic relationships.

“Fifty Shades” is much too mainstream to be filmed with an NC-17 hard cut that would offend too much of the country; too erotic to be given a softer, more emotional cut that truly examines the choices and mindset of those who explore BDSM lifestyles; and certainly too poorly made to deserve a sequel, but too financially important not to.

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