Fifty Shades of Grey might play like 2001: A Space Odyssey for anyone who hasn’t seen a half-naked woman before, but for most viewers it’s likely to feel rather tame (it’s closer to Cinemax than Penthouse). The rumors are true: Most of the novel’s naughtiest bits—the tampon, the vaginal beads, the rubbing of Anastasia’s ass with baby oil as Christian pulls her pants “up and down like a whore’s drawers”—didn’t make the leap from the page to the multiplex. But readers who delighted in the scenes of Christian rubbing ice over Anastasia’s nipples will certainly get their money’s worth.
Johnson, until now perhaps best known for her cameo as Justin Timberlake’s booty call in The Social Network, may have seemed like a left-field choice for such a coveted role, but this is why we have casting directors. At first blush, Anastasia Steele is little more than the living, breathing personification of that hoary old cliché, “She was pretty, but she didn’t know it.” Johnson capably leans into that idea but her mousiness isn’t as simple as it appears, and the actor convincingly sheds that demeanor once she discovers the strength with which Christian’s fetishes empower her.
Despite emphatically telling The Guardian that his contract prohibited his “todger” from being shown on screen, Dornan’s man bits do make the briefest of cameo appearances in the film. The actor doesn’t go the full monty (he doesn’t even go the full Affleck), but Fifty Shades nevertheless offers definitive proof that Dornan is more human than his occasionally robotic performance might suggest.
Anastasia and Christian may seem like star-crossed lovers but the only reason they meet is because Kate, Anastasia’s roommate, is sick and has to pull out of the interview she's scheduled with Christian for her college newspaper. So, like any intrepid reporter would do when cursed with a crippling stuffy nose (Kate is so sick that she has two crumpled tissues on her desk), she asks Anastasia—who works in a hardware store—to drive the 90 miles from Portland to Seattle and ask the handsome billionaire hard-hitting questions like “To what do you owe your success?” and “Are you gay?” How ironic that Ana is so willing to help people out of binds.
It isn’t exactly a spoiler that Fifty Shades of Grey is but the first chapter of a trilogy, but that can be easy to forget while you’re watching it—the film so closely adheres to the structure of a typical romantic-drama that the inevitable cliffhanger hits with unexpected force. Without giving too much away, the homage that Taylor-Johnson pays to The Godfather with her last shot is as explicit as anything else in her movie, except in her film it’s the woman who’s closing the door.
Exercising a degree of patience that’s seldom seen outside of Hungarian films about Communist land collectives, Fifty Shades withholds its first sex scene for more than 40 minutes—that’s a lot of foreplay. Taylor-Johnson does a terrific job of teasing things out, using that extra time to develop the characters and make sure that we can appreciate how life-changing the eventual sex is for Christian and Anastasia.
The MPAA has a history of scoffing at female pleasure (see number 51 in our 100 best sex scenes list), and Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t give America’s puritanical ratings board very much to worry about. Sure, Dakota Johnson gets to moan and writhe a little bit, but this is a movie that fades to black at every chance it gets. Taking a page from Alfred Hitchcock, Taylor-Johnson cleverly alludes to the clinical sexual details she isn’t allowed to show. Take the scene when Anastasia leaves Christian’s office after they first meet, and it starts to rain the moment that she steps outside—this is the only time we ever see her get wet.
When it comes to the setting and scope of this story, it’s true that E.L. James’s novel wasn’t exactly Dr. Zhivago—most of the book is set in and around Christian’s swanky Seattle penthouse and the same is true of the film. But the big-screen adaptation keeps this story even more tightly tied than it was before, dropping at least two major characters and the subplots they carried with them. Elena Lincoln (Christian’s very own Mrs. Robinson) is a key figure in the book, the older woman actively plotting to destroy Christian’s relationship with Anastasia. In the movie, she’s reduced to some offscreen backstory. Leila Williams, another of Christian’s emotionally disturbed ex-lovers, doesn’t even rate a mention.
Here's one of Christian’s more reasonable requests from the novel: “I know that lip is delicious, I can attest to that—but will you stop biting it?” No, she will not. The Fifty Shades drinking games may have to wait until the movie hits home video, but here’s some anticipatory advice: If you down a shot every time Dakota Johnson bites her lip, you’ll die of alcohol poisoning before the glider scene (and you don’t want to do that, because the glider scene is awesome).
British artist-turned-filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson is the best thing that Fifty Shades of Grey has going for it and fans of E.L. James’s novels will be pleased to learn that she has signed on to direct the next two installments as well. Taylor-Johnson is the rare director who can pivot from romantic-comedy to erotic drama with the crack of a flogger, and these stories need to be that limber in order to avoid descending into pure camp.