Popular discussion of the Fifty Shades Of Grey series tends to focus almost exclusively on the kinky sexual aspects of the story, downplaying the fact that, underneath all the Ben Wa balls and spreader bars, it’s conventional romance-novel fare. Well, at the beginning of Fifty Shades Darker, the second film in the series, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) informs her estranged billionaire lover Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) that, if he wants to be with her, he’ll have to leave all this BDSM nonsense behind. And he agrees, because she’s different from all the other girls. So while this film is also peddling fantasy, it’s of a different, even more unrealistic sort: That if he really loves you, he’ll change.
Anyone who’s ever been in an adult relationship knows that trying to change someone, especially at such a basic level as sexual proclivities, is a futile effort at best. But in E.L. James’ fantasy world, it’s remarkably easy. James’ worldview—more clearly expressed here without Fifty Shades Of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson and her pesky insistence on bringing arch humor to the series’ more ridiculous scenarios—combines breathless naiveté and deep cynicism, positing all men as leering potential predators and all women as their saviors. Every man in Ana’s life—from her good friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), who fills his gallery show with large-scale portraits of her without her permission, to her boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), who attempts to rape her the second they’re left alone in the office—wants to control her sexually. But she’ll only accept that sort of behavior from Christian, who can’t help following her around and controlling every aspect of her life because he’s “that way.”
The man is a walking red flag: He has potential lovers followed by private detectives and keeps dossiers on them. He gives Ana a phone so he can monitor her calls. He has her bank account number on file. He buys the company she works for so he can “protect” her. He refuses to allow her to go on a business trip, and installs her in her old boss’ job when he attacks her and gets fired as a result. But even more unsettling than Christian’s abusive, controlling personality is the blithe way in which these actions are dismissed. Sure, Ana may say something to the effect of, “You had me followed? Not cool, Christian”—and that is the level of wit on display here, make no mistake—but in the next scene, all is forgotten and they’re making love on satin sheets. You see, Christian’s birth mother was a crackhead, and thus he longs to abuse women who look like her in order to get revenge on her. No, really, that’s a big emotional reveal midway through the film. Cue shower sex!
To be fair, though, it’s not just these disturbing revelations that evaporate as quickly as they arrive. Plot points appear and disappear on a scene-by-scene basis, like the deranged former submissive who stalks Ana and who confronts her at gunpoint, asking, “What do you have that I don’t?” Well, Ana’s upset by this, naturally, and wanders around the rain-soaked streets of Seattle for a while. When she returns to Christian’s place a few hours later, he tells her “She’s in the psych ward,” and it’s never spoken of again. Then there’s the mountaintop helicopter crash toward the end of the film, with Christian missing and presumed dead; two scenes later, he just walks back into his apartment, with only a little bit of blood on his temple to let the audience know that anything was ever amiss. (He walked back to Seattle, apparently? It’s never explained.)
So, to put it politely, this movie has some structural issues. Director James Foley, who made some high-profile dramas back in the ’90s, is just working with James’ nonsensical source material as best he can. His approach lacks humor, however—probably the biggest laugh in the film is an unintentional one, when it’s revealed that Christian has a Chronicles Of Riddick poster on the wall in his teenage bedroom—meaning that, if you’re not swept up in the romance of it all, the only pleasures here are visual ones. And the film does look good, full of good-looking people in (and out of) nice clothes in front of spectacular vistas. The camera lingers more on mountains and less on shiny marble floors this time around, although Foley makes a point of visually mirroring memorable shots from the first film.
Johnson and Dornan do have a little more heat between them this time around, whether as a result of Foley’s direction or just through familiarity. As a more mature and confident Ana, Johnson once again steals the show, although you have to feel a little sorry for Dornan, who has basically nothing to work with character-wise. The rest of the cast, particularly Kim Basinger as enigmatic older woman Elena Lincoln, is woefully under-utilized. (The only one who seems to be having any fun is Marcia Gay Harden as Christian’s adoptive mother Grace.) The sex scenes—which do get kinky eventually, but very mildly so—are similarly brusque, as if they can’t wait to get this shit over, either. But the plot just keeps coming, all of it driven by the romantic idea of the redemptive power of love. It’s a female-driven fantasy, for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not toxic. And God help the poor woman who believes it.