Director: James Foley
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Tyler Hoechlin, Kim Basinger, Bella Heathcote, Hugh Dancy, Max Martini, Marcia Gay Harden, Eric Johnson, Luke Grimes, Rita Ora
Runtime: 1 hr 58 mins
Rating: R21 (Mature Themes and Sexual Scenes)
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 9 February 2017
Synopsis: Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson return as Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades Darker, the second chapter based on the worldwide bestselling “Fifty Shades” phenomenon. Expanding upon events set in motion in 2015’s blockbuster film that grossed more than $560 million globally, the new installment arrives for Valentine’s Day and invites you to slip into something a shade darker. When a wounded Christian Grey tries to entice a cautious Ana Steele back into his life, she demands a new arrangement before she will give him another chance. As the two begin to build trust and find stability, shadowy figures from Christian’s past start to circle the couple, determined to destroy their hopes for a future together.
Despite its title, the second entry in the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy isn’t a darker tale than its predecessor; in fact, you could say that it is a lot less so, chiefly because its director James Foley (taking over from Sam Taylor-Johnson) and screenwriter Niall Leonard (replacing Kelly Marcel, and who happens to be the book’s author E L James’ husband) forgo the doom and gloom of the earlier film for an intentional embrace of the novel’s trashy thrills.
Arguably, the change in tone is also afforded by the narrative, which sees Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) freed of the angst she faced over Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) “getting off on the pain he inflicted [on her]”, and in as much control of their relationship as Christian is. Whereas she was compelled to engage with him on the terms of their contract before, Christian has since decided that he cannot live without Ana and tells her that he’d like to renegotiate terms. “No rules, no punishments, we only do what you’re comfortable with.” To which she adds, “no more secrets.”
If there is a reason why this instalment is labelled ‘darker’, it is because Christian and Ana both have issues that they need to deal with, whether individually or as a couple. Christian begins to open up about his past – beginning with the death of his crack-addicted mother when he was four, to being sexually exploited by an older woman Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger) who still refuses to let go of him till today, to being stalked by a former love slave Leila Williams (Bella Heathcote) who remains obsessed with him. The fact that she has a boyfriend who draws out a forbidden zone on his torso using her lipstick and tells her to stay within it is weird enough for Ana, without having to confront Leila as well as a lecherous boss (Eric Johnson) who turns hostile when she rejects his sexual advances.
Even though these sombre twists may have been right at home within the same book, to keep them together coherently within a two-hour feature film is another matter altogether – and Leonard struggles under the weight of staying loyal to James’ prose without letting these subplots unravel the film altogether. Try though he does, the dramatic impact of these somewhat unconvincing twists and turns are severely neutered, so much so that they end up being unnecessary distractions at injecting complications into Christian and Ana’s evidently blossoming relationship.
Oh yes, if the previous movie teased its audience to guess will-they-or-won’t-they-stay-together, there is no such doubt this time round. Conspicuously absent is Christian’s need for dominance which drove Ana away in the first place, and the extent and speed of his apparent transformation from sadist master to considerate lover not only is a little hard to believe from a continuity standpoint but also makes Christian a much less compelling character. The same can be said of Ana, whose earlier sexual cum bondage inhibitions seem to have vanished too easily – though the latter does compensate with a newfound confidence and assertiveness which was arguably much less prominent before.
That the film itself remains fitfully engaging is credit to the appealing performances by Dornan and Johnson. The latter in particular deserves accolades for bringing class and grace to a thankless role, which many viewers are observing not so much for authenticity than for titillation. Indeed, Johnson is human and winning, equal parts vulnerable and strong-willed in her character even on the occasions when she is (for a lack of a better word) tied up. Next to Johnson, Dornan seems a lot more comfortable than he was before, and the couple effuse a genuine down-to-earth rapport which goes a long way into selling their unlikely coupling.
Much as we’d like to say we had saved the best for last, what we have so deliberately neglected talking about so far is really pretty much a non-event. The sex scenes spend too much time on the foreplay and not enough on the carry-through, and we suspect many viewers will feel frustrated several times over at how many of these scenes seem to end just when things are actually steaming up. And for all the fancy sex toys and bondage devices Christian keeps locked up in the Red Room, they hardly feature at all, except close to the end when Ana issues an open invitation for Christian to do what he probably wanted to on her.
Surely, those here to savour what Christian calls ‘kinky f**kery’ would quite certainly be disappointed, who will regard there to be too much submission and too little domination on display. To many we suspect, it is exactly that guilty pleasure which they are here for, not story or storytelling or characters. Just as well too, for none of these other elements offer much compensation, dulled too by the fact that Christian is no longer unrepentantly domineering and has in fact abandoned his bad-boy ways to become the embodiment of the new-age sensitive guy cliché.
Notwithstanding the newfound sense of humour, this sequel is still worse off than the original for being opposite from what its title suggests, so much so that what should have been a mesmerising exploration of the fine balance between submission and domination in a relationship – sexually, emotionally, or both – is ultimately no more than a big-screen adaptation of a trashy paperback. And just for the record, we came with every intention of digging into ‘Fifty Shades Darker’s’ lurid stimulations, so it is without bias that we say there is sadly too little gratification to be found here.
(From unrepentantly domineering to new-age sensitive lover, Grey has not quite become fifty shades darker as he has turned dimmer and duller)
Review by Gabriel Chong