When I first started writing reviews in 2015, I did a comprehensive look at male objectification in film media – focusing on the first Fifty Shades film and the first Magic Mike film. The point was to explore how male characters are handled in film, specifically ones marketed towards women, with titillation as one of the main selling points. In these films, male nudity is scarce, if ever even shown from the back and rarely from the front. In those two films, Dakota Johnson and Oliva Munn are fully nude from front to back – tastefully, of course. While the male leads, the latter film of which is about male strippers, are barely glimpsed from behind a handful of times. This is because men and women view titillation differently, but men are still making decisions behind the scenes. Regardless, this review (and the one coming next week) focuses on the first films of these two series. Fifty Shades of Grey is up first. One of the most talked about films of 2015; it was a smashing success. No matter the criticism levied against it.
Dakota Johnson plays Anastasia Steele, a young English major who is close to graduating with her undergraduate degree and is tasked by her roommate Kate (played by Eloise Mumford) to head into Seattle to interview the elusive billionaire, Christian Grey (played by Jamie Dornan after Charlie Hunnam had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with Sons of Anarchy). This meeting is purely by chance, as the office that Christian works out of is staffed almost entirely by blonde women. The implication is clear – Kate was chosen to interview Christian because of her blonde hair and educational background. The initial meeting between the two is full of tension, and Anastasia flip-flops between being flustered and in control. The back and forth in this scene for Anastasia was something that many people criticized, but I always felt that it was more in line with her finding her footing and standing up for herself. A good face can throw her off, and feelings she is not used to can only worsen that, but Anastasia is a woman who knows who she is and what she wants. Sometimes, it takes a moment for her to find that footing.
Fifty Shades of Grey is about the relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, and as the first film of a trilogy, its primary goal was to introduce us to the major characters and their respective plot lines. Some of these were moved from one film to another versus how they occurred in the book – the chief example being Anastasia’s first post-graduation job at SIP, where we are introduced to her new boss Jack Hyde (played by Eric Johnson in the sequels). Obviously, introducing unnecessary details from a later part of a story can cause problems if you don’t get to actually make those later stories – everybody remembers that there was supposed to be a fourth Divergent film, right? One of the other changes, which did not affect the overall storyline, was the removal of Kate’s brother Ethan. Because while this may have started life as Twilight fanfiction, Ethan’s character lacked the depth and importance of his counterpart, Jasper. So, these details being skipped, or saved for a sequel, are proper tools for adapting a book into a film. This also allows more time to focus on the main plot: the relationship between Christian and Anastasia.
Alongside Eloise, the supporting cast comprises José (Victor Rasuk), Anastasia and Eloise’s mutual friend, who happens to be hopelessly in love with Ana. Elliot (Luke Grimes) and Mia (Rita Ora) are Christians’ adopted siblings, while Grace Trevelyan-Grey (Marcia Gay Harden) and Carrick (Andrew Airlie) are his adoptive parents. Only Elliot and Grace play a major part in this film for Christian’s storyline, while José is mainly there to fill out Ana’s friend group, as she is clearly not interested in a relationship with him. Anastasia’s mother, Carla (Jennifer Ehle), her current stepfather Bob (Dylan Neal), and her other stepfather, Ray (Callum Keith Rennie), appear fleetingly, with Carla holding court with the longest screen time during Anastasia’s brief trip to Georgia late into the film. Last but certainly not least is Max Martini as Jason Taylor, Christian’s bodyguard and head of security, always in the background. They fill out the world that circles around Christian and Anastasia, flitting in and out as needed. While they don’t have nearly enough screen time with one another, their presence is much appreciated.
Partly why most of the supporting cast takes a massive back seat to the relationship between the two leads, despite it being about their relationship, is because the story is told entirely from Anastasia’s perspective. In the book, we only know what she knows or what she infers. The events that occur on screen are from her perspective as well – though, much like Stephanie Meyer did with Edward Cullen, E.L. James also produced companion novels that focus on Christian’s perspective. In fact, she gave us three, one for each mainline book. Meyer only provided one. When it comes to first-person perspective, the information about the rest of the world is difficult to provide because unless the viewpoint character is present, the information can only be provided secondhand unless something is contrived to allow the viewpoint character to come into possession of the information. This does work for dramatic effect, though. The information that Anastasia is not given allows her to truly be confused when it comes to her attention – such as the true reason why Christian prefers to surround himself with blondes rather than brunettes.
The relationship between Christian and Anastasia, as previously established, is the driving force of this film and the subsequent sequels. The back and forth between them (which only really lasts through this film and the first act of Fifty Shades Darker) illustrates how different they are, as well as the things that they truly want out of a relationship. Christian attempts to make it clear that he is not a “relationship guy,” but he continues to pursue a woman who clearly only wants a relationship without all of the strings (ahem) that come along with him. How they navigate their relationship is central to the story because that navigation allows them to see one another more clearly, and trust in one another when it truly matters.
One of the main reasons I always enjoyed the film series is the relationship between Kate and Anastasia – two very different young women who, like many college students, found the kind of friendship that the differences in their lives cannot tear down. While Kate comes from a wealthy background, it is clear that it is in no way close to Christian’s, yet that background allows her to see through Christian’s attempts to try and buy Ana’s love with material things. Anastasia also helps ground Kate, who can sometimes come off as flighty – but only in the best ways. In the film and the book series, Kate is on vacation for the literal length of a novel between the two (by page count and screen time), getting to know her new boyfriend, Elliot. Still, they stay in contact with one another throughout this time because their friendship is too important to set on the back burner. As such, even if Anastasia does not share the particulars of her relationship with Christian with her best friend, Kate is still in Anastasia’s corner. Their relationship is crucial to Anastasia’s development as a character.
Fifty Shades of Grey tapped into collective interest. It made a lot of money, as did its sequels. Even if the latter two films made less than the first, the franchise still shot through the roof to collect over one billion – some franchises wish they could get even a fraction of that. Valid criticism against the film, the book, or even the ideas and plot points therewithin can and have been made, but many people disliked the work because it was popular. Or because it was tailor-made for women rather than men. Untangling the two forms of criticism is not always easy, but I usually ascribe the second one to those who criticize it without reading or watching one of the books or movies.
In this film, rated R for a reason, features copious sex scenes – all of which are used to bind the characters together, both physically and emotionally creatively. As Anastasia and Christian grow closer or farther apart, it is reflected in where they are intimate. As everybody knows, the Red Room plays a central role in the story; though it is nowhere near as prominent in the film as it is in the book, it is still significant. How sex is used also ties into each character – for Christian, sex is about control, but for Anastasia, it is about intimacy and emotional connection. This begins to meld, forcing Christian and Anastasia to ask and answer hard truths about one another and for themselves. By the time those elevator doors close for the last time, you’ll be at the edge of your seat.
Love Me Like You Do by Ellie Goulding proved to be a major success when paired with the trailer and subsequently in the film – my only complaint is that the version used is not the version that has been released. Nevertheless, this song, which plays during the helicopter scene, is a standout for me, and while the other films in the series attempted the same with other catchy tunes, much like A Thousand Years by Christina Perri, Love Me Like You Do simply won out in the end.