Directed by: James Foley
Premise: A sequel to 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Picking up shortly after the events of the previous film, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) reconciles with billionaire lover and S&M enthusiast Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).
What Works: As in Fifty Shades of Grey, the best part of Fifty Shades Darker is Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele. Johnson has a strong screen presence and she plays the role with an appropriate amount of vulnerability and self-respect. In the first film, Anastasia was a meek woman who learned to assert herself and in the sequel she fends off the unwanted advances of her employer and takes charge in the relationship with Christian Grey, teaching him to accept boundaries and listen to other people. Johnson often caries the movie through its dramatic scenes. Unlike Fifty Shades of Grey there are a few laughs to Fifty Shades Darker. The sequel has a sense of humor that the first film lacked and most of the jokes appear to be intentional.
What Doesn’t: The very title of Fifty Shades Darker implies that the movie is going to escalate the drama and tread into more intense territory. It doesn’t do that. If anything, Fifty Shades Darker is a more conventional love story than the previous movie and it’s also flatter and less interesting. There’s no story here. The narrative has no rising action and there is nothing at stake. The movie begins with Anastasia and Christian split up. Instead of dramatizing the two of them finding their way back to one another, Anastasia and Christian reconcile early on and from that point forward there is no tension in their relationship. The first movie at least had Christian’s seduction of Anastasia and a sense of foreboding about the S&M content. None of those qualities carryover into the sequel and the filmmakers don’t replace them with anything. There are suggestions of storylines; Anastasia has an altercation with her boss (Eric Johnson), she is stalked by one of Christian’s former submissives (Bella Heathcote), and she has a spat with an older woman who has a history with Christian (Kim Basinger). None of these storylines are developed in a meaningful way and whenever tension starts to escalate Christian swoops in to save the day, robbing Anastasia of volition. The bulk of Fifty Shades Darker is just a random collection of scenes that could be rearranged in any order and make about as much sense. Fifty Shades Darker also continues many of the problems of the first film. Chief among them is the casting of Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey. Dornan is a vacuum of charism and he emanates no sense of mystery or danger or trauma. Instead of a tortured soul he is just a possessive jerk. In many respects that is exacerbated in Fifty Shades Darker. In the first film, Christian and Anastasia entered into a master-sub relationship and so there was an inherent but consensual imbalance of power. In the sequel, Anastasia is just a girlfriend who, in Christian’s eyes, has the unfortunate habit of having opinions and she spends a lot of the film nursing him into behaving like a socialized human being. This is infantilizing to both of them and makes neither of the characters interesting. The major attraction of Fifty Shades Darker ought to be the sex scenes. That’s what drew readers to the books. The sex sequences of Fifty Shades Darker are a bit better than the previous film but they are also monotonous and gratuitous. In a dramatic movie, a sex scene should function like a song in a musical or a set piece in an action movie; it should signify something and move along the plot and character development. The sex scenes of Fifty Shades Darker don’t do that. They are just interludes that make the movie longer and a lot of them are redundant. Multiple scenes are staged, shot, and edited in exactly the same way with bland pop ballads underscoring the action. The movie thinks this is edgy but the movie is just dull.
Bottom Line: Fifty Shades Darker purports to be a transgressive and passionate love story. It’s neither. The movie is a boring placeholder between the first and third installments of this series. It fails as drama and it’s not even satisfactorily smutty.
Episode: #635 (February 19, 2017)