So, like, when I talk about the movie WatchmenWatchmen, there’s a certain compliment I like to apply to a movie I otherwise dislike: the actors seem to be under the impression that they are in a very different movie than the director is making and they’re in a better movie. And I think that same compliment/observation can be applied mostly to Fifty Shades Darker, the second film in the Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation series based on E.L. James’ BDSM based Twilight-fan fiction. At least to the female actors – Dakota Johnson was already settled into realizing this character she’s playing is ripe for ridiculous overdramatics in the “romantic” side of things, Marcia Gay Harden rips into the material for her own character with fearless camp, and new entry into the franchise Kim Basinger doesn’t seem entirely aware of the quality of the material she’s playing, but she seems suspicious enough of it to apply the most 1980s seductive villainess you could give to a movie this otherwise sober-minded. The male actors – certainly Jamie Dornan, who plays mysterious BDSM billionaire Christian Grey – are not as lucky, probably less willing to jump into camp as they are to jump into a goddamn river. Bella Heathcote herself is somewhere in the middle, understanding that her character is feeling an amount of pain that nothing in the script seems aware of and turning a two-dimensional Fatal Attraction knock-off into a wounded soul.
There IS a compliment I pay to Watchmen as well that can not be remotely applied to Fifty Shades Darker: Fifty Shades Darker doesn’t feel visually interesting or inspired. This is a shame because the first Fifty Shades of Grey, I am embarrassed to say, kind of was even despite being boring as all hell. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, director Sam Taylor-Johnson, and production designer David Wasco all figured on the cleanest coldest domain for Grey’s demons to reside in, utilizing his last name as visual motif the way you’d probably have to to get anything out of this material. All three of these figures are sadly replaced in Darker by John Schwartzman, James Foley, and Nelson Coates respectively (but not respectfully) and they shoot and design Fifty Shades Darker like an Ash Wednesday version of a Sears commercial, attempting to oversell the “dark” tone of the material as a make-up for no visual character at all. And this is already going to get hamstrung by the fact that most of the material isn’t residing in the shadowy chrome sharp corridors of Fifty Shades of Grey* is luxury porn scored by the happiest uncomplex pop song you could imagine Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik writing intercut with the occasional knowledge that screenwriter Niall Leonard just quickly wrapped up another conflict and they have a huge amount of movie left “so lemme try to figure out what to do with this here helicopter” or “wait a minute I just realized I named this white fuckboi Jack Hyde, lemme collect on that”.
Leonard, by the way, is notably the husband of James and so evidently more devoted to translating the very letter of his wife’s novel as sincere, straight-faced, and sober drama treating Grey’s sudden return into the life of Johnson’s publishing worker character Anastasia Steele as fiery romanticism when stalking you ex-lover and utilizing your financial power to buy her place of employment should be a red flag about the sort of toxically damaged individual you are. And again it’s not like it’s not a toxic workplace to begin with anyway when her creep supervisor is named Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). And credit where credit is due, Grey’s extensive amount of backstory exploring – rivaling that of, say, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – just how much loathing he appears to have towards his mother for not being sexually conservative and her personal struggles with drug abuse and all I can think of is if I can’t stand this sort of subtle slut-shaming in attempted trash like the Scream franchise (I’m gonna be honest and say if a movie is legit trashy in an enjoyable way, yeah, I’m probably gonna eat it up as silly junk, but neither Scream or Fifty Shades are that) what makes Leonard think I’m gonna go “poor baby” towards Grey for using that as the basis of a whole revolving door of pretty violent relationships that left enough scarring on an individual to make her an unfair secondary antagonist. I think it’s already been acknowledged by enough viewers how harmful this franchise has proven to be about portraying BDSM lifestyles and I can very much see why.
Aight, I’m getting heated. Lemme settle down a bit as I just turn this all around and wrap up my attitudes by reiterating. None of these unfortunate politics or dramatic self-tripping would bother me as much if the movie was maybe a little bit exciting to watch as a fabled “good bad movie” since the material is so askew to do it and God Bless Johnson and company for trying to herald its way into it, but Foley and Dornan and their departments clearly did not get the memo and have the more prevalent authorship in their self-serious treatment of the film. Most of all, Leonard’s inability to keep the juggling conflicts from braking the momentum of the plot and then inching forward and then braking back and forth unfortunately choke any possibility of making Fifty Shades Darker one entertaining experience.
*It’s insane how much hating Fifty Shades Darker is taking away an amount of my hatred of Fifty Shades of Grey. Still hate it, though.