by Courtney RaveloIf you’re not familiar with the Fifty Shades of Grey series, let me forewarn you: the trilogy is based on a book series by writer E.L. James who loosely connected Twilight fanfiction with a brand-new BDSM relationship of her liking. I know, fascinating. Fifty Shades Darker is the second installment of the book-turned-film adaptations, with Jamie Dornan reprising his role as the steamy and mysterious Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson coming back as the elusive and unwieldy Anastasia Steele. At the end of the last film, Ana left Christian in a fit of despair, making the audience wonder whether she’ll come back to him or not. The beginning of Fifty Shades Darker is centered around that very concept — Ana rekindling her questionably abusive relationship with the esteemed billionaire businessman/dominant Christian Grey.
Fifty Shades Darker opens with separate shots of Ana and Christian going about their single lives, pining for each other longingly in their recent loneliness. The film doesn’t give a timeframe for how long they’ve been apart, but it does a good job of making sure the audience knows they are both suffering equally (Johnson and Dornan express this well, especially Dornan, as Christian has been previously perceived as unfeeling). Ana receives flowers from Christian as a congrats on her new job, where she recently began working as an assistant to a manager, Jack (Eric Johnson), at a publishing house in Seattle. She briefly considers throwing the flowers out in a comedic, light-hearted fashion by holding them over the trash and considering for a moment if they were pretty enough to keep (which is odd compared to the heaviness of the first film), but decides on keeping them. We then follow her to her friend’s art opening, where (You guessed it!) Christian magically appears to beg her to go out to dinner with him. She says yes. Although sometimes cringe-worthy dialogue and plot wise, I have to admit that the chemistry between Dornan and Johnson is so much better than in the first film that it’s almost unbelievable. You can tell they’re much more comfortable, feeding on each other’s emotions in both the romantic scenes and the emotionally challenging sex scenes.
My biggest issue with this film would have to be the underdevelopment of key scenes and characters. Smack in the middle of the film, Christian tells Ana he has to go to Portland for a few days on “business.” Cut to him flying a helicopter over a green forest terrain with a woman passenger we don’t know. The helicopter malfunctions and starts going down into the trees quickly and with no explanation or clear resolution. Cut back to Ana and Christian’s family in his penthouse in Seattle, watching the news while biting their nails and holding each other in anticipation. It seems a bit contrived, and what makes it worse is when Christian just walks in covered in sweat, with a little scrape on his forehead. What? He doesn’t explain the situation at all, why he was in the helicopter, who he was in the helicopter with, what happened to the helicopter that made it go down, where they were going in the helicopter or anything else. It is definitely the most forced scene in the movie, and for an audience member that hasn’t read the books prior to seeing the film, I can imagine some severe confusion. The whole scene comes off as a rushed action ploy to make the film seem more exciting for trailers and previews.
There’s also the random inclusion of Christian’s housemaid in this film — a character who was blatantly left out of the first film. She has one scene in which she says one particularly unimportant thing, and then is never seen again, so it seemed like a waste of a scene to me, or maybe like a case of a producer begging the director, James Foley, to put his daughter in the movie. If a character isn’t going to be developed or mentioned, the character should be left out completely. Christian’s chauffeur, Taylor, on the other hand, is in both films and you see him quite often throughout. Again, his character should be more developed. In the books, he is more important and familial than his cinematic counterpart is. It’s the people that love the books that will have an issue with this, as it seems one of the most liked characters has been slighted.
There is also the underdevelopment of Leila, an ex-submissive of Christian’s who begins stalking Ana in an attempt to understand why Christian loves Ana and not her. This film lacks a clear climax, instead including a bunch of mini-climaxes regarding the three separate antagonists, which are Leila, Jack and Elena (Christian’s previous Dominant). They’re all introduced rather haphazardly and have intros that are a little rushed. For example, Leila ends up breaking into Ana’s apartment and holds a gun to her face. Christian then barges in, saves the day and later rushes to explain to Ana that she’s just an ex-submissive of his who’s a little sick in the head. Comforting, no?
Jack, however, has more depth to the portrayal of his character. He comes off charming, and a little sultry at first, but then some danger is added when Christian tells Ana to be careful around him, as every previous assistant of his has quit unexpectedly. After the mini-climax of Leila is over and done with, there’s the mini-climax of Jack cornering Ana in his office after hours and sexually harassing her. She breaks free, and when Christian finds out, Jack is fired. This sets up a personal vendetta for Jack, leading (You guessed it!) to another open ending to set up the third film. By the way, did I mention that Christian asks Ana to marry him in the middle of the film? Or maybe that was the climax. It’s hard to tell.
But let’s get down to the sex scenes. What really made the sex scenes special in the last film, and then again in this one, was the music that accompanied them. Halsey’s sensual voice serenading us as Christian and Ana travail the sexual positions of a complicated dominant/submissive relationship is very appealing. There are new positions and new instruments of painful pleasure in these sequences. The sex scenes are never boring, which contrasts with the overall mediocrity of the plot.
In essence, the film itself isn’t terrible as a stand-alone film, but, as a novel adaptation, I was just a little disappointed with the stringing along of new characters and their underdeveloped intros and exits. Dornan and Johnson should get a lot of credit for carrying the film, but the directing unfortunately hits some road bumps. It’s a patchy film to say the least; there isn’t a cohesive plot structure, but the acting, costume design, soundtrack, and set design are worthy of applause.
Overall, I found Fifty Shades Darker more comedically relieving than the first film, with many awkward pauses for laughter to be considered. Dornan and Johnson are more playful with each other and their relationship is portrayed in a healthier light, which I assume is because of backlash from the abusive qualities of the first film. Ana fights back a little in this one, showing her sarcastic side a little more forcefully. Their ability to play off each other, I would argue, saves the film from being a completely broken up, typical Hollywood franchise money-maker.
3 out of 5 stars