Review by Eric Hillis
Directed by: James Foley
Starring: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Tyler Hoechlin, Bella Heathcote, Kim Basinger, Rita Ora, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden
By 2015, when Fifty Shades of Grey hit the screen, the literary phenomenon that inspired the adaptation had considerably subsided, yet cinemas were crammed with groups of wine-smuggling women and tissue-smuggling men, all desperate for a bit of smut. Expecting soft-porn, most viewers were miffed at a movie that wouldn't feel out of place on the Lifetime channel on a Tuesday afternoon. But the studio got their money regardless, and a trilogy was born.
If you managed to stay awake to the end of the first movie, you'll recall bookish manuscript reader Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) walked out on buff billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), finding his insular nature and obsession with ass paddling too much to bear. The audience cheered, partly because Christian is a toxic individual and a personality free bore, but mostly because the movie had finally come to an end.
In this dreaded sequel, it doesn't take long for Christian to tempt Anastasia back into his lavish torture dungeon - a bunch of flowers seems to do the trick - despite his behaving like an ignorant prick towards the waiter at the restaurant where they reunite and like a jealous teenager towards her hunky but creepy but hunky boss (Eric Johnson).
The first movie came under fire for its Victorian attitude towards BDSM, portraying a harmless pastime as something only 'damaged' people would engage in, rather than a pursuit most healthy couples will try out at some point in their relationship. As if to counter such flak, this time BDSM is largely played for laughs, with scenarios that wouldn't be out of place in a straight to DVD American Pie sequel - Anastasia goes to dinner with beads stuffed up her unmentionable passage and gets fingered in a crowded lift by her stone-faced lover (when you're a billionaire you can grab 'em by the pussy!). Needless to say such sequences are hilarity free.
Fifty Shades Darker is a black comedy that's neither dark nor humorous, and it's a sex movie that's so unsexy my genitals had retreated inside my body by its midpoint. While Johnson gamely delivers on the T&A front (her mother, Melanie Griffith, would no doubt approve), Dornan's trousers remain conspicuously in place during every sex scene. This guy is so prudish he even wears his trousers in the shower, like he's the kid in gym class who always had ringworm. As an Irishman, I worry women of the world may now judge my countrymen's virility on Dornan's embarrassing performance. In a shamefaced piece of product placement, we're greeted to a close-up of a tub of ice cream from a famous dairy; the flavour, appropriately, is vanilla.
This may seem a hyperbolic attack on fruit so low-hanging it's practically worm feed, but Fifty Shades Darker really is one of the worst movies I've ever had to endure. It's all fine on a technical level, and no blame can be levelled at Johnson and Dornan, who probably deserve an award simply for reciting the dialogue they're saddled with here. I'll also refrain from criticising Niall Leonard's script, because I suspect William Goldman couldn't polish the turd that is EL James' source material. The story is utterly devoid of that key dramatic element - conflict. Nothing poses a palpable threat to Anastasia and Christian's relationship here, not even the crazy ex played by a dead-eyed Bella Heathcote or a pointless helicopter crash. Everything runs smoothly for this pair of dullards in a movie that serves simply to set up a finale. It's the Empire Strikes Back of excrement. Your safe word is 'avoid'.
Fifty Shades Darker is in UK/ROI cinemas now.