It’s not entirely clear who the intended audience is for Fifty Shades Darker, the second film adaptation of EL James’ “mummy porn” series of embarrassments. It can’t be fans of actual porn, or even erotica — you’ll find a lot more than a pair of boobs on display in a typical episode of Game Of Thrones. And it’s not the woman who, as she walked out of last night’s screening, I overheard tell her friend “That was hysterical — I know it wasn’t meant to be, but…” And it’s definitely not anyone who actually wants to see a good film, who expects a decent character or two, a bit of accomplished acting, some engaging plot or any of the other typical hallmarks of a good film.
The first film in the series, Fifty Shades Of Grey, was a textbook example of a shit film. It was dull, it was lifeless, it was drab, it was — oh, the irony! — grey, but only a couple of shades. This latest instalment — we have one more to deal with, if we’ve not entirely lost our will to live by then — is less drab and dull than its predecessor, but it’s no less worth the price of your ticket. It’s also shit.
But it’s not enough just to say it’s shit. Let us count the ways. And let’s start with the characters. Ana, you’ll remember if you put yourself through the first film, is a weak, simpering, ineffectual, easily-led, easily-manipulated Modern Woman, and she is, again, the protagonist, again being toyed with by Christian Grey, who wants nothing more than to satisfy his desire for sexual domination by tying her up and giving her a good slap. Having been nauseated by his need to hurt her at the end of the last film, she’s now won over by a bunch of flowers, a bit of stalking and a “renegotiation,” always the most romantic of moves. So she suddenly finds herself passionately in love with this one-dimensional bundle of psychoses again. And, well, that’s about it. There is no depth, no subtlety, no attempt to develop either Ana or Grey beyond these very simply outlines, and neither is enough to sustain the film. Director James Foley, desperately trying to improve on the steaming turd that Sam Taylor-Johnson left on our cinematic doorstep with …Of Grey, fails to bring anything of any great interest out of either Dakota Johnson or Jamie Dornan, both of whom find a tone they like at the start of the film, and stick with it for all two hours, Dornan’s Grey all moody and brooding while Johnson’s Anastasia sounds like a seven-year-old who still can’t understand why her daddy won’t buy her a pony.
Astonishingly, though, they’re not the most shit thing about this film. Even worse is the attempt at a story. Darker, we’re told this film will be. So there’s a masked ball early on in the mess, and maybe that’s the bit that’s meant to be “dark” — it’s what the publicity materials would suggest. It’s not, just in case you were wondering. Maybe the “dark” is meant to be Kim Basinger as the older woman who first seduced Christian as a teen — but while she gets to do the nearest thing to acting in this film, she’s on screen for three scenes. Perhaps it’s the attempts at peril that get tossed in, resolved much too readily and easily to sustain any tension, and then utterly dropped. An hour into the film, I was wondering if Foley had even remembered to incorporate any kind of narrative arc into his film; then he chucked in a handful of utterly under-developed, barely-though-through, tossed-off ideas that did nothing to leaven this flattest of films.
But that’s not what makes it as utterly shit as it is. That honour goes to EL James’ ongoing failure to understand what makes a relationship work, which translates on screen into an utter lack of any kind of spark between the two leads. She gives us no idea at all of why Ana, supposedly an intelligent and independent woman, would allow herself to be manipulated and abused by as reprehensible a character as Grey. He gets something approaching a backstory — a crack-whore mother made him emotionally unreachable — but of the origins of her weak, ineffective blandness we learn naught.
This is not a good film. It wants to think it is, but it’s not. It also fancies itself a lot smarter, a lot sexier, than its predecessor. Again, it’s not. It lacks the confidence to be properly sexy, and ends up being just a little bit sad and risible. It’s every bit as funny as the original, but again, the humour is unintentional. And it’s a shame. We should be celebrating in EL James a woman who has found monstrous success with a runaway hit with a strong female protagonist, a realistic woman with a real woman’s real flaws. But what James has created is not a flawed character but a completely failed one, a weak and shallow woman who exists only as a plaything for a nasty, hurtful, abusive psychotic. James should be ashamed of herself for writing her female protagonist so poorly, but then, to be honest, everyone involved in this film really should have a word with themselves. If you want porn, that’s what you have the Internet for. If you want a good film about intelligent, brilliant women, go and watch Hidden Figures. But don’t watch Fifty Shades Darker. It really is quite monumentally shit.