How a book critic and a film critic differ in their reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson star in Fifty Shades Of Grey. -- PHOTO: UIP 
Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson star in Fifty Shades Of Grey. -- PHOTO: UIP 

Review by film critic John Lui

For men, the question of "porn for women" is like that for space aliens: The idea is tantalising, but scary.

If it appeared on men's doorsteps, would it resemble something they know and like? Or would those fleshy fantasies be terrifying - or worse, make them feel small, in all senses of the word?

Student journalist Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) interviews enigmatic billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). They are sexually attracted to each other but he speaks of his dark secret coming between them. Eventually he opens up, telling her that unless she becomes his submissive in a sado-masochistic relationship, they cannot have a relationship.

Grey (Jamie Dornan) of Grey Enterprise Holdings is a billionaire industrialist, pilot, pianist and philanthropist, your everyday Batman-Elon Musk combination, but much, much more better-looking.

So, put a check mark next to the box marked "intimidatingly outsized". The amount of luxury porn on display here (aircraft, servants, gliders, limos, apartments the size of Olympic villages) makes rap videos look pauperish.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy, 2009) and writer Kelly Marcel make clear that Steele (Dakota Johnson) is not too feminist soak up the pampering. The way into Steele's heart (and elsewhere on her body) is by sweeping her off her feet, literally, with a helicopter ride over the city.

Judge her for her shallow wants, but the film's visual style states that this is a fantasy, as much a fairy tale as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. Butlers and chauffeurs hover invisibly. They couple sweatlessly. His fingers are magical sex-wands.

The bedroom scenes are not cheesy - no soft-focus, candlelight-drenched, tasteful blurriness here. They are as explicit as they need to be.

These scenes, left unmarred by the Media Development Authority (thank you, MDA), are long, and by Singapore cinema standards, boundary-pushing. They are vital to the story. Without them, this film would be about 30 minutes shorter and make much less sense.

Like its source material (the novel of the same title, and its inspiration, the Twilight series), the movie draws on very old stories about innocent girls, dark forests and big bad wolves with sharp teeth.

So there is an awful lot of rose-tinted nostalgia here for a time when women sat passively while powerful men threw wealth at them, but the interesting difference here is that the power dynamic between Red Riding Hood and the Wolf shifts.

Steele knows her own sexual power. She negotiates. She questions Grey's assumptions that his pleasure comes first, and hers will flow naturally from it. That back-and-forth (depicted somewhat literally as a dance) is sexualised, and director Taylor makes it work.

3 stars

johnlui@sph.com.sg


Review by book critic Akshita Nanda

For a movie about wild, steamy sex, the Fifty Shades Of Grey (R21) has several inhibitions.

There are reasons to try and like this film, which opens here on Thursday - for trying to present sex beyond bland, mainstream vanilla. For a female lead willing to try these lesser-known flavours and able to refuse what is not to her taste.

For being shown in Singapore theatres uncut, proving that even if the National Library Board refuses to trust reader judgment and stock E.L. James' bestselling erotic books on its shelves, the Board of Film Censors will concede that some viewers are mature enough to choose their own entertainment.

Such a pity then that this poster child for uninhibited fantasy takes the old-fashioned missionary position on what constitutes appropriate male-female relations.

Literature student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) meets billionaire businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and begins a submissive-dominant sexual relationship with him. It is based on the bestselling 2011 novel by E.L. James.

Do not let the surprisingly well-done R21 scenes fool you - yes, they show actual body parts and condom use instead of the artfully shadowed triangles and unseen assumption as to safe sex more common to Hollywood - but these are icing on top of a deceptive cake. As in the book, the submissive/dominant interaction between main characters Christian and Anastasia is a consequence of the former's traumatic childhood, not an acceptable expression of human sexuality.

Luckily the answer is sexual healing, straight from ancient myths about the monster-taming powers of the magical virgin. Anastasia's trusting surrender begins to heal her man's tragic flaw, a process likely to be completed over two movie sequels, recently announced and based on James' two other novels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

Nothing disturbing thus far? What about Christian's wish to constantly monitor his lover's presence and activities, turning up unannounced at her residence or intruding on a mother-daughter lunch? This is proof of true affection rather than a red-flag signalling that it is time to seek behavioural therapy and police intervention.

It is also yet another link between the movie and its vapid parent, teen vampire romance Twilight, which also spawned a multi-film series, from 2008 to 2012.

Written by Stephenie Meyer, Twilight was another tale of a drab female protagonist who blossoms under the attention of a superbly manly male, who stalks her and chases off all other suitors.

 It was a heavy-handed endorsement of sexual abstinence before marriage, with human Bella Swan and vampire Edward Cullen unable to consummate their romance for fear of sparking Edward's inhuman lusts - read, teenage hormones. This state of affairs being unacceptable to James, a reader, she made Meyer's repressed characters her own in self-pleasuring fan fiction. The popular result was seen online and snapped up by publishers, scrubbed clean of Twilight references, sold 100 million copies worldwide and now comes to screen as fantasy twice removed and paper-thin in plot and purpose.

There have been good movies about the BDSM culture (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sado-masochism), such as the cheekily comic Secretary (2002) with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in similar but far more believably acted submissive-dominant roles. There have been disturbing, thought-provoking movies about male-female power dynamics, such as Jane Campion's eerie Sleeping Beauty (2011), in which Emily Browning played a call-girl paid to enter a narcotic-induced sleep with her clients.

Fifty Shades Of Grey is neither of these. Half an hour into the movie, when Anastasia rejects her classmate, a mere artist, in favour of the man with multiple cars and a helicopter pilot's licence, it is clear that this is the grown-up version of Twilight for the unthinking audiences who bought into that myth as well. That myth being, of course, that a woman's worth is between her legs and a man's in his wallet.

Do not sign me up for the sequels. If Fifty Shades Of Grey grosses millions, it will be through relying on loyal book readers. There is little in the movie to win over critics - not even sex stripped off its inhibitions.

2.5 stars

akshitan@sph.com.sg