Fifty Shades Darker: Erotic sequel eases up on romance, sexuality

“Every fairy tale has a dark side.” – ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ tagline    

Sexual romance drama franchise “Fifty Shades” returned to theaters this weekend with the arrival of “Fifty Shades Darker,” a film that feels safer and brighter than it probably should.

Adapted from the E.L. James’ novel, “Darker” follows up within days after the conclusion of 2015’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” as billionaire and self-described sadist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) attempts to regain his ex Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson). The BDSM violence that caused Ana to ditch Christian at the end of the first film is washed away, first by Ana and later by the filmmakers as the dark allure of the first movie becomes largely abandoned for a plot ripped from a Lifetime TV special.

Johnson continues to be the shining light in this otherwise languishing, vapid franchise. She gives another dazzling performance considering the poor quality of Niall Leonard’s haphazard screenplay and talentless costars bringing little to the table. Her visible lack of chemistry with Dornan – to the point that Johnson reportedly had to down shots of whiskey before shooting sex scenes – completely destroys the film’s romantic angle, though Johnson surely cannot be blamed.

Much like in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Dornan attacks Christian with a monotone, almost robotic droll that often lulls audiences to sleep. Unable to identify with his character in any substantial way, Dornan resorts himself to softening his lines to make them sound sexy. The constant whisper he uses as Christian dulls the senses and completely undermines Christian’s complex backstory.

Far too often on a scene to scene basis, the result has Johnson acting against a whispering wall of emotionless abs regurgitating lines off a page rather than a composed, professional performer. 

It should be expected that the couple’s sexual exploits would be ramped up in the film to compensate for the lackluster on-screen romance, but the exact opposite is true of “Darker.” In lieu of the erotic kinks and BDSM subculture, director James Foley drives viewers down the road to traditional thriller but fails to bring the same level of suspense he did while at the helm of the “House of Cards” Netflix series.

Canadian actor Eric Johnson underwhelms as Ana’s domineering, sexually aggressive boss Jack, while Australian actress Bella Heathcote isn’t entirely to blame for the paint-by-numbers manic ex with a grudge Leila, a character destroyed by Leonard’s uneven script.

Kim Basinger, brought in simply due to her “9½ Weeks” erotic drama credentials, mails in a bland, uninspired performance as Elena Lincoln, a villainous romantic rival from Christian’s past who saunters in to “intimidate” Ana. The five minutes of effort Basinger puts into the role feels more appropriate for a daytime soap opera rather than a major motion picture.

What truly works in “Darker” is a series of secret understandings. 

Audience members understand that “Darker” is the kind of movie you want to go and see in the theater with your girlfriends and never discuss publicly, pure sexual escapism.

The filmmakers – from the studio heads to the writers to the director and on down the line – know that things like coherent plot points, compelling characters and nuanced performances don’t matter. A movie like “Fifty Shades Darker” is the cinematic equivalent of Fabio-adorned novels.

Ardent fans of the book trilogy and/or the “Fifty Shades of Grey” film adaptation may find “Darker” to their liking in spite of the major writing and acting flaws. Those viewers should also stick around through the credits to watch a small teaser trailer for the final movie in the trilogy, “Fifty Shades Freed,” slated for Valentine’s Day weekend 2018.

There’s little romance – or sex for that matter – in “Fifty Shades Darker,” a film probably better suited for private enjoyment when its inevitable “unrated” release hits DVD and Bluray later this year.

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