Tippi Hedren was menaced by birds, both she and daughter Melanie Griffith were mauled on- and off-camera by the big-cat menagerie in Roar, and now granddaughter Dakota Johnson’s big-screen foray in the ill-advised taming of creatures sensibly left well alone continues with Fifty Shades Darker. The species on display here is billionairis sadistus Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the legalistic control freak who, last time around, spanked poor ingénue Anastasia Steele (Johnson) right out of their one-sided relationship. Now, months later, Ana has picked herself up into a plum position at a publishing house as an editor’s assistant, while Christian is still mooning over his lost sex slave, an emotional state he expresses by buying her new job’s parent company. He’s still the same grim, clenched bully he was in the first installment, but Ana agrees to try again with him—if he behaves like a normal, “vanilla” boyfriend. You can guess how long that lasts.
To name the sequel Fifty Shades Darker is a misnomer, since its plot is just as light and frothy as any beach-read romance—the blushing ingénue with just enough sass not to be a pushover, the mysterious and virile stranger who reveals he’s just a tender little boy inside, their rocky romp to matrimony tossed with some tussles in the sheets. It’s a Harlequin paperback with NSFW accessories, and while one or two scenes do generate some tingles, they rarely exceed the level of author E.L. James’ most notoriously overused expletive: “Holy crap!”
But getting to the meat of the story means squirming through the first 30 minutes, during which Anastasia’s (nonsexual) consent gets trampled on in one scene after another, as if being tenderized for later. A friend hangs huge pictures of her in a gallery show and waves away her discomfort by saying, “If I had asked, you would have been too shy.” Her boss cajoles her into drinks when she’d rather not. Christian transfers a huge sum of money into her private bank account after she rips up a check for the amount, and threatens to heft her over his shoulder while both are standing on a city street if she won’t come back to his apartment at once. Their chaste dates include screaming danger-sign banter from Christian like: “I want what’s mine” and “Calm is not really my forte.” At one point a frustrated Anastasia screams, “This is wrong! It’s all wrong!”; regrettably, she doesn’t get up and leave for a much better kinky movie (like maybe Secretary or Belle de Jour), where she can get what she obviously craves without her choice of master making our collective stomachs crawl.
These consent issues aside, some of the derision of the Fifty Shades franchise is just befuddled misogyny—125 million women must be wrong, the thinking goes, while the mass deluge of male-gaze porn must be right. The lion’s share of hate, however, arguably comes from the anti-literate quality of the source prose. (One sample quote: “My inner goddess is doing a triple-axel dismount off the uneven bars, and abruptly my mouth is dry.” This reviewer’s own inner goddess closed the book at that point.) But as blank and underwritten as Anastasia is, there’s one reason we care about her happiness, and that’s Dakota Johnson. She is the subject, not the object, of this movie, and clothed or unclothed she is sincere about what a young woman might do and say and feel in a situation like this. She’s still in a movie, though, where helicopters crash and drinks get thrown into faces and boyfriends say “wear these” before going out (hint: it’s not earrings). Sociologists may still be spinning theories about why, after decades of feminism, there’s a roaringly hungry market for this happy-ending romance in bondage gear, but rather than ask “why?” we should be asking “how?” As in, how can a film better fulfill these underacknowledged lusts of its female audience, instead of forcing them to settle for this? Fifty Shades Darker isn’t as bad as its predecessor, but it’s certainly much worse than the enduring S&M romance yet to be made could be.