Movie review: Among other problems, Fifty Shades Of Grey has some inhibitions

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

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.

Fifty Shades Of Grey (R21)

125 minutes/Now showing/ 2.5 stars

akshitan@sph.com.sg