To see “Fifty Shades of Grey” is to realize that movies could really use more sex scenes directed by women. Women know how to take their time. As directed Sam Taylor-Johnson, those bedroom and playroom interludes are as erotic as any reader of E. L. James’ novel might hope them to be, and they’re not at all lewd. They’re effective because they’re personal, all about the people involved and their longing.
In a movie that’s as much about sex as this one, that’s a major asset, and “Fifty Shades” has the additional advantage of two charismatic leads in the main roles. Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are not merely adequate. She is instantly engaging and the focus of the audience’s sympathetic attention from start to finish, and he is always interesting. We will be seeing them for years, and not just in “Fifty Shades” sequels.
With all that going for it, one might wonder what else could matter. The enormous, make-or-break things are perfectly in place, and just that is enough for a reasonably enjoyable movie. But plot problems, some comically weak dialogue, repetitious scenes and a non-ending ending keep the experience a little more earthbound than it had to be.
All the film’s problems can be traced to the novel, which is, ironically, just the kind of novel that often makes for a successful film: It’s bad, but it has something. There’s something there, if you’re willing to blast for it. So the task of the screenwriter would seem to be straightforward, to mine the novel for the elements that work and fix what doesn’t — except with a famous book, you can’t do that, not without starting a revolution in the audience.
Still, for the first hour, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is almost entirely successful. Anastasia Steele (Johnson), a college student, goes to the office tower of 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan) to conduct an interview with him for the school paper. He is confident and decisive, and she is scattered and diffident. But something in the honesty of her essence penetrates his practiced façade, so that each represents something the other wants.
In a reversal of what we usually see in movies, it’s the woman who is overcome with lust for the man, and these early scenes, in which Ana tries with all her might to hold it together in his presence, contain many funny little moments, subtly executed. Johnson’s direction is full of light, specific touches, as when we see Ana, from behind, glancing at the clothing of the women in Grey’s office and realizing she is underdressed.
Watching this film, particularly during its first hour but later, too, one gets the impression of a director who knows the script has nothing to offer her but the central relationship of Ana and Christian. So she works with her two actors, making every scene rich with nuance and back story, with moment-by-moment stratagems and barely perceptible shifts in power. She takes time to build the characters’ lust for each other, laying that in from the beginning, so that their lust gradually becomes the audience’s lust.
Once Ana and Christian have sex for the first time, and especially after they’ve had sex for the second time, the movie starts to sag. There are too many similar scenes, in which she tries to get close, and he tries to get her to sign some contract agreeing to become his “submissive” partner in sadomasochistic sex games. Curiously, though these scenes become tiresome, Johnson and Dornan never do. Nor does the odd romance of Ana and Christian ever become a matter of indifference. We always care; we just wish they’d talk about something new.
Some scenes are so lazily written they become funny. At one point, Christian is having some business trouble, and this is what he shouts into his phone: “Tell them they don’t have 24 hours! . . . This is unacceptable! . . . Keep me informed!” The only way that’s good business dialogue is if a sequel later reveals that Christian really isn’t a businessman, that he’s been faking it.
Still, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t like this movie, just as I can’t pretend there’s nothing wrong with it. But try thinking of it this way: It’s an event movie that’s also a relationship drama, and that’s rare.
Finally, it should be said Dakota Johnson is not related to Sam Taylor-Johnson but is the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, and Griffith is the daughter of Tippi Hedren. So young Miss Johnson can be seen as the happy end-result of a three-generation genetic experiment, conducted on celluloid.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @MickLaSalle
Fifty Shades of Grey
Drama. Starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. (R. 125 minutes.)