'It’s hard not to feel sorry for the actors, who we can sense are gritting their teeth to get through their incoherent scenes'Michael De Luca Productions/ Universal Pictures

How does one review a film that is marketed as “pornography with plot”? Through what lens does one view and critique it? I sat down to watch Fifty Shades Darker hoping for an answer to these questions, but left the screening more confused than certain, and decidedly more unamused than aroused.

So much happens in this film that a brief synopsis is near impossible. It’s fitting that the franchise originated as fan fiction, because the plot genuinely reads like a bad chapter on Wattpad: “this happens, then that happens, then that happens, and then they make love, then someone dies, then we find out that the main character is actually sleeping with his sister.” Anastasia agrees to reunite with Christian after terminating their last “arrangement” out of concern for her own health and safety; this time, however, she demands a caveat of “no rules, no punishments, and no more secrets.”

Of course, E. L. James, ever the tease, intends no such thing, and throws us enough rules, punishments, and secrets to last a lifetime. The couple acquire themselves an obsessive stalker, whilst Anastasia finds herself caught up in coercive workplace seduction with her boss. Throw in ingredients like Christian’s old childhood haunts of troubled family, some light S&M set to The Scientist by Coldplay, and a spot of inexplicable gun violence, and we’ve got ourselves a hit sequel.

“Throw in ingredients like Christian’s old childhood haunts of troubled family, some light S&M set to The Scientist by Coldplay, and a spot of inexplicable gun violence, and we’ve got ourselves a hit sequel”

The film opens with Anastasia (“Ana”) nursing her sore and tender heart (amongst other things) after a painful break-up. She sighs incessantly and flashes wistful smiles at her boss and colleagues, as if to say “I’m okay, but you should pity me anyway because I am vulnerable.” We’re also graced with a close-up of her sitting on a park bench scrawling into an empty notepad with malaise. I wondered what she could possibly be writing; presumably not anything important, as her pen never actually makes contact with the paper.

'“You’re not putting those in my butt,” Anastasia remarks, miffed, when Christian presents her with a glamorous string of chrome anal beads'Michael De Luca Productions/ Universal Pictures

I am impressed by Dakota Johnson’s acting abilities. Starring in a film premised on pain, she really takes the concept beyond the territory of sex and brings its essence to normal scenes too. What I mean is, I’ve never known an actor to imbue more pain and discomfort into their default expressions than she does. While Christian helps Ana to steer his boat across the ocean, Ana robotically recites: “Oh my god. I’m steering it. I’m doing it. I’m the captain.” I had to wonder: was Dakota Johnson recording her ADR under duress? Do we need to investigate the working conditions on set?

Darker differentiates itself from its predecessor largely on the point that Ana is taking power back this time – it’s feminist, trust us. It takes Christian about two sentences to convince Ana to get dinner with him. He is characteristically domineering and orders steaks for them both; however, Ana’s got tricks up her sleeve too, and proves that things will be different this time by correcting him and ordering a triumphant quinoa salad instead. I could feel our feminist foremothers rising up from their graves in rapturous applause at this defiance of chauvinism.

The script even contains a cheeky Jane Austen nod: “Would Ms. Austen approve of this?” Christian asks before initiating sex. A veritable Mr. Darcy of the modern day. He later transfers $24,000 into Ana’s bank account for no discernible reason other than to show that he can; she doesn’t seem to mind the fact that he casually has access to her bank account. Instead, Ana cheekily defies his attempt at dollar diplomacy by giving the money away at a charity gala. “Now, it’ll go to somebody who needs it,” she remarks lecherously. Philanthropy is such an aphrodisiac.

My favourite parts of the film were the couple’s attempts to get to know each other. “I want to know everything,” Ana says, cradling Christian’s face in her hands. “My mother died when I was four. She was a crack addict,” he replies immediately. At this point my eyes rolled so far into the back of my head that I could see my own brain sitting in my cranium. The attempts are particularly amusing because of the acute lack of chemistry between the two leads. It’s so tangible that it almost leaps off-screen and punches you in the face. This all comes to a head when Ana texts Christian “Laters baby.” Is text flirting supposed to be this insipid? Also, who texts like that? 

“My eyes rolled so far into the back of my head that I could see my own brain sitting in my cranium”

Darker also involves many more characters, to its own detriment. It strings along a half-baked subplot where Jack, Ana’s publisher boss, tries and fails to seduce her. He is fired and doomed to the book industry blacklist, all at the hands of Christian Grey. Ana is also stalked by a sickly, ghoulish woman who we find out was a former Christian submissive. She later appears in Ana’s flat, pulling a gun on her. “What do you have that I don’t?” she asks tearfully, “he loves you and not me.” “Nothing. I am nothing.” Ana replies meekly. To the surprise of no one, this stunning de-escalation of force does not work, and Christian ends up barking hypnotic orders he has clearly adopted from Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, at the poor woman. These characters are mere blips on the plotline radar, gone as soon as they are introduced. It was hard enough for me to generate any interest in the two lead characters, let alone a whole host of peripheral nobodies vying for my patience.

'Darker differentiates itself from its predecessor largely on the point that Ana is taking power back this time – it’s feminist, trust us'Michael De Luca Productions/Universal

The sex scenes are exactly what you’d expect: breathy, fleshy, and exceedingly well-lit. Lots of shadowy forms moving together in the darkness, with close-ups of pulsating veins and hands gripping wrists. One scene was set to a song by Nick Jonas, a treasure of my childhood whose voice I never expected (or really wanted) to hear in the background of a spanking scene. Its scant eroticism was pretty much stripped away entirely when a surprise Nicki Minaj verse kicked in.

The funny factor was also dialed up this time, to a decent degree of success. “You’re not putting those in my butt,” Anastasia remarks, miffed, when Christian presents her with a glamorous string of chrome anal beads. As it happens, Christian does end up putting them in her butt. It’s all very erotic, Ana sitting at the masquerade ball with a string of metal marbles inside her, but I couldn’t help feeling like they would just be a hassle. What if they fell out when she stood up? Or if she yelped in the middle of the auction? Too high-risk for my understanding.

Levity aside, there is something frustrating and deeply unsettling about Anastasia’s understanding of how dangerous her situation is. She is justifiably upset when Christian reveals he has done a background check on her. “This isn’t a relationship... this is ownership!” she declares, but immediately ruins this clarity: “It’s hard to get close to you when you keep doing bizarre things like this.” An incredibly invasive act is reduced to a mere oddity. Whilst I’m sure parents aren’t heralding their children into Darker screenings for developmental viewing, the film normalises damaging behaviour in relationships, and sets a perilous precedent by packaging dynamics like this as sexy or erotic.

I also don’t understand why the film insists on pretending that it’s anything more than coffee-table pornography. Its attempt at exceeding these parameters amounts to a delivery that is not just confused, but also offensive. As part of getting to know each other, Christian allows Ana to touch his scars, remnants of his abuse, before they have sex in the shower. Involving childhood trauma and abuse into what is ostensibly live action erotica does actual survivors of physical and sexual violence a disservice. The abuse Christian suffers as a child is an unfortunately real experience for many people, which is severely cheapened when used simply to fatten up the emotional charge of this film. 

“As it happens, Christian does end up putting them in her butt. It’s all very erotic, Ana sitting at the masquerade ball with a string of metal marbles inside her, but I couldn’t help feeling like they would just be a hassle”

The writers really took pains to showcase their screen-writing prowess in Darker. After Jack is fired, Ana is manoeuvred into power as his Fiction Editor stand-in. Her contributions in the board meeting contain high-level publishing jargon: “I can show you the stats. Joe Fox got 80,000 hits last week, which could translate into publishing sales.” This film is also a repeat offender of bad sex talk. “You’re mine,” Christian declares as he throws Ana on the bed, and she whispers back at him, “I’m yours.” Steady on, it was going pretty well until you both started talking. In a moment of bracing introspection, Christian confesses: “I’m not a dominant. The right term is a sadist. I get off punishing women who look like my mother.” I had to laugh out loud. Christian is the anti-Oedipus of the liberal S&M generation. And what a way to come out as such.

In the final 20 minutes, we are hit with a curveball. Out of nowhere, Christian is piloting a helicopter spewing black smoke and falling out of the sky. Ana gathers with Christian’s family around the TV, crying disconsolately into Rita Ora’s shoulder as the headline “Christian Grey Goes Missing” scrolls past. Suddenly, he strolls through the elevator doors, unscathed and without so much as a scratch; the Red Room would probably have made more of an impact. Why did this happen? This would be the essay equivalent of adding about fifteen new points into the conclusion.

The film chases too many loose threads, sticks its fingers in too many pies for its own good. What central plot-line is it advancing? The new vanilla flavour of the relationship? Christian’s struggle to deal with his childhood abuse? Ana’s professional development as a book editor? The healthy exploration of S&M in relationships? It’s hard not to feel sorry for the actors, who we can sense are gritting their teeth to get through their incoherent scenes. Jamie Dornan puts in gracious work as Christian Grey, especially when he lifts his body into a 180° horizontal line on his indoor pummel horse (this author may be biased).

If a movie is going to be bad, it should at least do so with good humour. Bad movies have the potential to be fun, after all. Fifty Shades Darker is anything but. I commend the team behind the film, though. Despite the obvious observable fact that they hated this project, it takes a certain level of skill and commitment to turn a film so determined to be racy and lascivious into a profoundly unsexy piece of cinema

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