Now before I begin, I’d like to say that I do understand that I do not situate within the target audience for this series of films. E.L. James’ books, and the subsequent adaptations, have roped in a stronger ratio of female fans, particularly those of the ‘sexual thriller’ genre that seems to have boomed over the last few years with the likes of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I am neither a female (what gave it away) and as such I cannot directly relate to the protagonists of these stories, as they predominantly focus on the struggles of a vulnerable female/female driven to the edge.
However, as is evident by my liking to Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl and Tate Taylor’s vision of The Girl on the Train, I can most certainly empathise with the characters and get a kick out of the lurid, noirish narratives that they follow. While I cannot call myself an obvious fit for the genre, I can certainly admit to enjoying this stylistic hyperbole and was therefore intrigued by the prospect of Fifty Shades Darker, a film that in its promotional material, seemed to hint that it was heading in this direction.
And yet, in spite of this benefit of the doubt, Fifty Shades Darker fails not only as the sexual thriller that was promised to us in trailers, but as the romantic drama that it seems to be leaning towards throughout the film. From this sentence, it must seem obvious by now: the film suffers from a real identity crisis.
This all relates back to the script. Written by E.L. James’ husband Niall Leonard – seemingly without any experience – the film jarringly shifts between romantic interlude, to raunchy scene of kink and chink, to a sequence that reveals a thriller cliché in the form of a dangerous love interest or a stalker obsessed with one of our leads. Without settling on a single one of these tones/narrative forms, we’re left in a deluge of plot point after plot point, development after development, impulsive and abnormal character motivations that appear throughout. It would seem that three separate films have been made here, and yet are expected to mould together here like the smells of lavender, sweat and gunpowder.
To emphasise this point, you’re perhaps wondering why there hasn’t been a plot synopsis yet. But that’s just the point: there isn’t a plot to work with. The narrative sporadically introduces so many hollow narrative details to affect the relationship between the protagonists Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) that it’s like experiencing a cognitive game of Twister.
Not only is the narrative lacking in coherence, but the direction is flat. While the original film was hardly a comparative masterpiece, the director Sam Taylor-Johnson brought some artistic levity to the otherwise uninvolving and characterless narrative action. Yet James Foley, the director once responsible for the underrated Glengarry Glen Ross, brings none of the stylistic flair of a Fincher or even Taylor-Johnson. He instead directs the romantic scenes as though they were commercial features of an ad for a dating website. He treats the sexual encounters with little sensuality and emotional investment, instead making them feel like soft-core pornographic previews. And the thriller elements come off as campy and cartoony, pastiches of the likes of Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, without any of the appeal or verve.
I guess you could say that the film comes off feeling like a mess. But there are two candle wicks that are struggling to burn in the tempestuous winds of the subpar production: Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. Props to the lead actress and actor for not only keeping a straight face during some of the more laughable dialogue exchanges, but for actually imbuing a sense of affection into the relationship of these two characters. While the narrative threads don’t gel, the romantic moments function best purely because of this chemistry.
Nevertheless, Fifty Shades Darker falls victim to the ‘quantity, not quality’ maxim. The overabundance of narrative inconsistencies causes the film to derail our interest in the plot. Despite the best efforts of Johnson and Dornan, we care little, if at all, about the outcome of the film. There is chemistry, for sure, but when the confines of the production and the jarring script work against this, it can leave one feeling confused and baffled, as someone would after mixing a number of ingredients together that taste great on their own, but refuse to work in tandem.
Here’s hoping Fifty Shades Darker turns the lights out on this franchise.