Fifty Shades Darker
I’ll be perfectly honest here- Anastasia Steele has me hooked in. I can play coy and embarrassed and be all guy-like and repel against these big-screen adaptations of E.L. James’s best-selling “mommy porn” books, but the truth is, Dakota Johnson’s performances as Anastasia are selling me on this story. It’s not just the copious amounts of nudity when her and Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey bump uglies, but the character, as performed by Johnson, is well-developed and compelling. I have no doubt that James’s books are trite and mediocre reads- nothing in either film makes me think otherwise- but however cheesy the films have gotten, Johnson has been a strong center for these films to be focused on. She’s elevated these films beyond the silliness they can project.
There’s a point around midway into the film when Anastasia calls Christian out on his tactics, calling him “controlling.” I almost wanted to shout-out “you go, girl” in the theatre, because here, she has Christian pegged. This isn’t a woman who holds Christian up on a pedestal, not since the end of the first film when he showed her just how far his obsession takes him. He has to earn her trust back, and honestly, buying all the portraits of her at her friend Jose’s (Victor Rasuk) art show when they get reacquainted at the beginning of “Fifty Shades Darker” because he “doesn’t want anyone else looking at them” is not the endearing sentiment he thinks it is. To his credit, he comes to understand that, for the first time in his life, he’s playing from behind with a woman, and I’ll admit, that aspect drives this film much further than the first one ever went. I did not see that coming from this first.
True to the title, “Fifty Shades Darker” begins to dig deeper in Christian Grey’s past before Anastasia, and what drives him romantically, and it’s not a pretty sight. We learn that his mother died of an overdose when he was four, and he was abused by her boyfriends, which included cigarettes being extinguished on his body, the scars of which still remain. When we find ourselves in his childhood bedroom at his adopted parent’s house, there is a picture of his birth mother up, and it’s not hard to see the resemblance between her and Ana. I couldn’t help but think of “Vertigo,” and given what a huge Bernard Herrmann fan I know he is, it makes it quite crushing that composer Danny Elfman’s score doesn’t go in quite that direction in this film. The music, both Elfman’s score and the song soundtrack, was a big part of what made the first film work as much as it did, but here, neither are quite up to snuff, although both have their moments, to be sure.
Christian’s obsessions with pain, the need to inflict it on women for erotic gratification, is at the heart of “Fifty Shades Darker,” and Dornan plays it well, although he’s still more one-dimensional in his role than Johnson is. We meet his “Mrs. Robinson,” the family friend who introduced him to BDSM (although when he accurately calls himself a “sadist” near the end, it was another moment when I wanted to stand up and cheer). She is Elena Lincoln, and she’s played by Kim Basinger, who is delightfully over-the-top in her brief appearance in the film, an obvious nod to her role in the steamy “9 1/2 Weeks” 31 years ago, which is very much a precedent-setter for this film. She feels like she knows the “real Christian,” and warns Ana against trying to change him, a warning that goes unheeded, as Ana sees right through her. More troubling for Ana and her perspective future with Christian is Leila (Bella Heathcote), a former submissive of Christian’s who fell hard for him, but after tragedy, and not getting the type of relationship with him that she wanted (which is the one Ana is trying to build with him), has had a breakdown. She is a reflection of what Ana could be if she were not as strong as she is, and didn’t have the understanding of Christian that she does, and it’s an effective moment in the film when the three of them (Ana, Christian and Leila) are face-to-face in Ana’s apartment.
The director of this film is James Foley, who is a serious-minded filmmaker (best known for “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “After Dark, My Sweet”), but who was probably hired for his work on the thriller, “Fear,” 21 years ago that has similar themes. I was concerned about the switch, not just in the director’s chair, but in having the script being written by Niall Leonard, who is E.L. James’s husband. For all its faults as a film, I felt like the choices of screenwriter and director, both women, the first time out did a good job in getting us into the story, and sympathizing with Ana, but Foley and Leonard, to their credit, do a terrific job of that, as well. If there’s a big complaint I have with their approach, it’s that the film falls into predictable erotic thriller tropes and formula much more than the first film does, but they hit all the right notes when it matters most for the story, and for the sex to sizzle (which, spoiler alert, it does). They deserve credit for that, but most of the credit belongs to Dakota Johnson, who has really embraced the role of being a strong feminine character in a series that could have turned truly exploitative, but is instead giving her a chance to shine.