FIFTY SHADES DARKER. Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk. Directed by James Foley. 118 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong sex scenes).
The ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy of books was a surprise megahit, selling over 100 million copies worldwide. It told the story of Anastasia Steele, an unassuming girl who had a whirlwind romance with hunky multi-billionaire Christian Grey. Its kick? Grey harboured a secret obsession with BDSM, an acronym for bondage, domination and sado-masochism. Despite the dubious characterization of the books’ central relationship, the books’ success inspired the 2015 hit movie based on the first book, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. Two years later, and its sequel in arriving in cinemas just in time to target its key demographic at Valentine’s Day.
I didn’t much like the first film. It started well with its tongue planted in its cheek, but the final hour was consumed with much handwringing, as Ana struggled to comprehend how Christian could find hitting her erotic if he truly liked her. Ana’s struggle wasn’t relatable (would she have even considered staying with Christian if he wasn’t a magnate, because he’s certainly not charismatic), nor was Christian’s excuse excusable (he was abused as a child). It got quickly boring, despite its salacious premise, getting bogged down in romantic melodrama. For my money, ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ sidesteps most of these issues, and delivered an entertaining two-hour spectacle. Its fundamental flaw is weaker but still there (the shakiness of romanticizing a relationship based upon pain), but it’s lighter and more wink-wink, moving its melodrama from the bedroom to the outside world, resulting in a less dreary film.
At the end of the last film, Ana left Christian ‘for good’. It’s no spoiler to say that she begins this one by almost immediately reuniting with him. Ana is still the same person, although she has gotten herself a new job and a stalker. Yes, one of Christian’s former submissives called Leila (Bella Heathcote) has begun showing up around Ana’s daily routine. She looks unkempt and deranged, and manages that stalker’s trope of disappearing just as Ana tells someone else to look. There’s danger at work too – Ana’s boss Jack (Eric Johnson) doesn’t so much appear onscreen as ooze into the shot, so clearly earmarked as the sequel’s main villain that it’s unsurprising when he’s already sexually harassing Ana after only a couple of his scenes. Add a slinky Kim Basinger as the third villain, Elena, the woman responsible for introducing Christian to the world of BDSM, and Ana has her hands full.
So what makes it better than its precursor? The script is genuinely funny, hugely aided by the knowing performances of the film’s stars. It was written by Niall Leonard, the husband of the book trilogy’s author, who fundamentally accepts that there needs to be a levity amidst the melodrama. Dakota Johnson, the highlight of the first film by a wide margin, brings the same humour to her absurd role, acting as the audience’s proxy with her latent shock at the lives of the super-wealthy Christian and his family. Her partner in misbehaviour gets an upgrade too. After an opening that has Christian creepily purchasing every portrait of Ana at one of her friends’ photography exhibition, his behaviour mellows as he opens up to Ana. Jamie Dornan, so flat and lifeless in the first film, at last brings a spark and a winking smile to match Johnson’s. Their chemistry won’t set the multiplex ablaze, but the fact that they are now laughing together means that it has improved significantly in the interim. This should likely be attributed to director James Foley, whose long career has clearly given him some rapport with his cast.
There are still several problematic elements, both morally and from a technical standpoint. The latter first: it’s about 15 minutes too long (the laughable ending is among the fat that could have been trimmed), and any eroticism in the relationship between Christian and Ana is often swamped by a booming pop song, courtesy of the film’s ‘Official Motion Picture Soundtrack’. Veteran composer Danny Elfman, who created the film’s sparsely used score, has every right to feel hard done by. Morally, the basis of a relationship formed by one partner’s physical dominion over the other is still worrying. Even though this element is toned down (‘Ana initiates and enjoys their intense encounters now, so it’s totally fine’ the film tells us), it’s difficult to accept given where we stand as a modern, forward thinking society. This is not to deny erotic films their place in canon, but when sexual violence and extreme wealth are fetishized together to the extent that they become synonymous and are portrayed as equally desirable, the underlying message is questionable.
Ultimately, it’s a film that is nigh critic-proof. It is made for its millions of existing fans. Viewers who went to the first film and weren’t turned off attending its sequel are not going to listen to further criticism of its premise. Casual viewers were never going to see the film; I wouldn’t suggest otherwise. However, it’s a plus that those admirers of the source material will be enjoying a better night out than that of Valentine’s Day in 2015.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out February 9.