Despite being widely derided by critics, British author EL James' erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey went on to become a legitimate publishing phenomenon, spawning a trilogy that has to date sold in excess of 100m copies. The inevitable big screen adaptation looks set to share the same fate as the book in terms of its critical reception, but it's fair to say that director Taylor-Johnson has made the best possible film of the book, given the raw material she was working with in the first place.
Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) plays Anastasia Steele, a slightly klutzy literature student who's sent to interview mysterious, smouldering billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan, best known as the serial killer from TV's The Fall). Something sparks between them at that first meeting and soon Christian is sending her first editions of Thomas Hardy novels and popping into the hardware store where she works, on the pretext of buying cable ties (a cheeky bit of foreshadowing).
Not having had a proper boyfriend before, Anastasia is somewhat overwhelmed by the attention and it isn't long before they're kissing passionately in a lift. However, just as she thinks they're going to start actually dating, Christian tells her that what he really wants out of their relationship is for her to submit to his every whim in his specially equipped “Red Room of Pain” and would she mind signing this non-disclosure agreement? Rather than run away screaming, Anastasia tells Christian she'll think about it, leading to what amounts to a cat-and-mouse game as to whether she'll give in to his desires and sign his legally binding sub-and-dom contract.
That the film works as well as it does is due in large part to Johnson's terrific performance as Anastasia. She has an appealingly vulnerable quality that works well, but she's also prepared to give as good as she gets – consequently, the film's best moments occur when she playfully teases Christian over his demands, most notably in the contract negotiation scene. It also helps that Taylor-Johnson and Marcel have wisely opted to remove the excruciating first-person narration from the novel, leaving Johnson's expressive eyes and face to convey her emotional state.
Dornan, by contrast, has the less sympathetic role, but he manages to convey the idea that Anastasia is beginning to crack his tortured facade. Similarly, despite widespread press reporting that the pair couldn't stand each other, there is genuine chemistry between them, and crucially, they do actually look like they're enjoying themselves in the spanking-heavy sex scenes.
On top of that, the film is beautifully shot, courtesy of acclaimed cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who makes the leads, the sumptuous interiors and rain-drenched Seattle look equally stunning.
That's not to say the film is without flaws, though they are almost exclusively the fault of the book. In particular, the dialogue is frequently laughably terrible, with clunkers like, “I don't make love, I fuck ... hard”. Similarly, Christian's darkest desires essentially amount to a bit of moderate spanking, hand-tying and tickling, followed by some entirely conventional-looking shagging – if you're after a more convincing cinematic depiction of a BDSM relationship, check out Steven Shainberg's Secretary instead.
In short, Fifty Shades of Grey is far from the disaster you might be expecting and if you can get past the occasionally terrible dialogue, it's surprisingly enjoyable and even rather sweet.