The most interesting thing about Fifty Shades Darker is how mercenary the whole film is.
I have an obsession with seeing Jamie Dornan’s penis. Some might consider it unhealthy, that I have voluntarily sat down twice now to watch a Fifty Shades movie with the express intention of seeing the dong, or even just the stunt dong, of a man I have never meant, had never heard of prior to these films (and will likely never hear of again after this trilogy comes to a merciful end), and have absolutely no sexual attraction towards whatsoever – he’s far too much like a custom-made Ken doll, for my liking. But it’s all for a purpose. That purpose is wang, obviously, but there is a critical reason for wanting to see the Dornan-ator on full-show. Fifty Shades is supposed to be an erotic-romance series. That’s what it was sold as, that’s what it became known for in the cultural sphere: steamy, filthy, horny smut that less supplements the usual “romance” aspect of a Romance novel and more completely subsumes it. This is meant to be a gateway into a world and subgenre that, until now, has been shunned by mainstream society; a legitimising, if you will. The moment where we begin to try and normalise sex and horny lust and kinks instead of rolling our eyes or going “eww, gross!” at it.
To that end, I should be seeing some prime-cut man-meat on full display to go along with the many, many, many shots of Dakota Johnson’s boobs being exposed to the air outside of their bondage. Yet, two full movies over a total of four full hours have now passed and not once has either film given me even so much as a glimpse at the goods. I have written about this in a purposefully goofy and silly way, but I do have a serious point to make with the fact that neither of these films have bothered to give us even just one shot of Jamie Dornan in his natural birth state. The fact that these films are completely reticent to show us a fully-naked Jamie Dornan is reflective of their overall non-commitment to their own damn premise. These are supposed to be scandalous, unashamedly dirty pieces of erotica, yet they are the safest, tamest, and most conservative kinds of “scandalous erotica” possible. So dispassionate, so uninterested. It’s not so much that Fifty Shades is “ashamed” of the genre and components that it is ostensibly a part of, as it does “has no feelings at all towards any part of it.”
I’m not going to waste your time telling that Fifty Shades Darker sucks. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the dialogue is atrocious, or that the acting is lifeless, or that Johnson and Dornan have the sexual chemistry of a rat and a bucket of bleach, or anything like that. You know this already. Ditto Discourse 101 stuff about how these films don’t portray BDSM properly, or how this is an abusive relationship, or blah blah blah. You’ve heard those talking points to death already and I’m not going to tell you anything you won’t have heard elsewhere from other, far better people. Although I will say that this film openly acknowledges that Christian Grey (Dornan) is not a Dominant but a full-on Sadist, not that this stops him from being portrayed as totes dreamy with more money than God and more places than Geoff from The Late Late Show.
No, what I am most interested in is just how passionless and mercenary and cynical this entire film is. Fifty Shades Darker has absolutely no interest in anything. It’s not interested in plot or conflict, that’s for damn certain. Every single possible outlet for dramatic conflict is shut down firmly almost always by the start of the very next scene following it. Ana (Johnson) takes back Christian within 10 minutes of the film starting, despite the entirety of the climax of the last film being about her being driven away by him. Then she insists on taking things slow, only for the two to start having sex by the end of the very same scene. Ana is stalked by one of Christian’s former emotionally-unstable submissives (Bella Heathcote) throughout and when they have a “big” confrontation, Grey immediately defuses the situation then mentions that said stalker has been sent to a psychiatric ward, never to be heard from again. Same treatment happens to Ana’s new boss (Eric Johnson) when he tries to rape her, whilst a late-film helicopter crash may as well have not happened at all for all the impact it has on the film. One character mentions how Grey “looks like shit” when he walks back in from it, only for another to respond along the lines of, “are you kidding? He still looks perfect!” the film effectively heckling itself.
But, sure, I guess that’s not a deal breaker (even if a runtime of nearly two hours for something like this is still interminably overlong). After all, we’re not here for dramatic conflict, or narrative, or even consistent themes. No, we’re here for the sex. Rough, kinky, sweaty, nasty sex. There is a lot of sex in Fifty Shades Darker, far more than you get in your typical romance movie, that much is true. Roughly every 20 minutes on the dot, right around the time that one starts to get the thought that maybe they’d be preferring to watch an actual film instead of this, a sex scene is thrown out to appease you. Christian and Ana will do it in Ana’s bedroom, they will do it in the shower on Grey’s boat, they will do it in Grey’s childhood bedroom, they’ll do it in Grey’s shower in his penthouse, and then they’ll go into the Red Room for about five minutes in order to really do it. They’ll do it with some light spanking, they’ll do it after some vaginal beads have done the prep work on Ana, they’ll do it with some leg extender thingies, they’ll do it raw and vanilla, they’ll do it with oil and blindfolds…
If all of this sounds very dry and clinical, like ticking off a list of scenarios that need to be visualised in order to sufficiently satisfy a very easy-to-please audience, then you wouldn’t be wrong because that’s exactly what all of the sex in Darker is. I’m not going to kink-shame, I’m not going to argue that giving the people what they want is a bad thing, not at all. Magic Mike XXL, for example, is basically the movie that Fifty Shades should be, since that has the same lackadaisical attitude towards dramatic conflict and the expected tenants of filmmaking and storytelling as these films do. However, and this is the crucial difference, Magic Mike XXL revels in giving the audience what it wants. It bursts with palpable joy over its many, many sequences of super-hunky boys stripping their clothes off and gyrating in every last direction for little reason other than that being the film that its audience wants to see, so why pretend otherwise? If Fifty Shades similarly had intentions of nothing more than wanting to make people horny as fuck, then I’d at the very least respect that. Maybe even end up getting swept up in it myself somewhat, as I try and figure out my own relationship with sex and kinks and the like.
But those are not Fifty Shades Darker’s intentions at all. Not when almost every single one of the film’s many sex scenes – save for a stealth one in a crowded elevator that is also the most audacious thing in the whole movie – are all so dull and empty. Even setting aside the aforementioned fact that Johnson and Dornan somehow have less chemistry than the melting waxworks featured in the music video to “Instant Crush” by Daft Punk, none of these sequences crackle with any kind of intensity or passion whatsoever. They come and go in much the same manner as I described two paragraphs back, with a weighing sense of obligation rather than any investment. If anything, these sequences seem less designed to give the audience what they want and more to sell them on the Official Soundtrack cuts that accompany every single one of them, given how all of these sequences ultimately end up looking like nothing more than your average “racy” pop music video.
This, ultimately, is Fifty Shades’ greatest sin. It’s not a series with a compromised vision or principles that have been undermined, the result of trying to bring a subgenre such as erotica into the mainstream in order to make it palatable to the kind of audience, because it had no vision or principles in the first place other than its own continued existence. Fifty Shades is only interested in sex, romance, and erotica specifically in so far as it can utilise the images of said in order to make everybody involved shit-tonnes of money without them having to actually make proper erotica. It is quite telling, in that respect, that news leaked out of Universal ordering the film’s stars to quit it with sexual discussions on the press tour this time around, because it is perfectly emblematic of their attitude towards this whole series. Nobody here is interested in trying to legitimise erotica, kinks, or sex. No, they just want to appropriate the scandal associated with them just enough that they can spice up an otherwise empty, unpleasant, and bog-standard romance with a gimmick that can provide something new to sell to the audience.
Watching Darker drag on and on and on, I came to the realisation that I was far too unnecessarily harsh on Fifty Shades of Grey. I would not call it anything close to “good,” let me be clear, but that was a film willing to try and embrace kink and erotica and open attitudes towards sex, even if it was just tentatively, and that doing so came second to a clear attempt at deconstructing the more insidious parts of the original text. Where Grey failed was when its director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, and its screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, were whipped back into line by E. L. James and Universal, who clearly see this whole enterprise as nothing more than a Get Rich Quick scheme and that any embrace of real kink or the campier undertones of the whole thing may risk bringing about real scandal and real backlash neither party could truly contain and would ultimately hurt their wallets. How else would you explain the much-vaunted Red Room getting less than five minutes of playtime in Darker and said sequence being arguably the tamest and least-satisfying one in the entire movie?
It took watching Fifty Shades Darker for me to realise that, but I do see it now. After viewing Darker – with Taylor-Johnson and Marcel sent marching, replaced by James Foley in the director’s chair and James’s husband Niall Leonard assuming screenplay duties – the fruits of James and Universal’s successful efforts to whip every element of the series’ production into towing the party line, I see it clearly. This is a series with absolutely no intentions of any kind beyond lining its creators’ pockets. It is not interested in telling a story, it is not interested in portraying a romance, it is not interested in trying to legitimise frank attitudes towards kink and sex, and it is not even interested in sincerely giving the viewers what they what. This is mercenary filmmaking, designed to sell the Fifty Shades brand, the Fifty Shades image, and nothing more. That’s why I am obsessed about seeing Jamie Dornan’s penis in one of these films. At least then I might be briefly fooled into thinking that anybody involved in this production cares about anything other than their inflated bank balances.
Callie Petch has got a boyfriend anyway.