The “Fifty Shades” franchise has taken the world by storm. The original film, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” earned over $560 million internationally, while the recently released sequel, “Fifty Shades Darker,” is currently sitting just below $300 million. That’s on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the book franchise has earned in sales so far. These numbers seem to indicate that audiences have found something compelling in this franchise that began as erotic “Twilight” fanfiction. Curious to see what that is, I reluctantly set out to view the latest installment.
In preparation for the “Fifty Shades” sequel, I caught myself up by watching the original. I quickly learned it was little more than a thinly disguised softcore pornographic film. Even so, “Grey” does have one redeeming quality (spoilers ahead): after a short-lived, tempestuous and completely abusive relationship, the film ends with protagonist Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson) walking out on her domineering lover, millionaire Christian Grey (played by Jamie Dornan). This moment was the shining light in an otherwise surprisingly boring and unenjoyable film. When wide-eyed Steele finally stands up for herself, putting a firm end to the clearly toxic relationship she shared with the entitled, egotistical and clearly insane Grey, she earns a certain amount of respect back from the audience.
About ten minutes into “Darker” the one shred of redemption for the otherwise irredeemably awful first film is completely invalidated. “Darker” could have been about a newly independent and empowered Steele as she fends off advances from a reformed and heartbroken Grey; instead it finds her easily agreeing to take him back at the first opportunity. The break up at the end of the last film and the events which lead up to it are little more than a footnote in the continuing whirlwind Grey and Steele saga of grossly misinterpreted bondage, discipline, dominance and submission culture.
Dornan would no doubt earn a five star review if graded on his training regimen for this sequel alone; however, his uncharismatic, one-note performance as Grey falls flat. Dakota Johnson, on the other hand, brings a welcome depth to her portrayal of Steele, giving strength to the character that was missing in the first film, despite the character’s mostly one-dimensional characterization throughout the series so far. Veteran actor Kim Basinger joins this sequel as Grey’s one-time abusive lover and current business partner Elena Lincoln, with a completely phoned in performance. Though her character sees very little screen time, every line Basinger delivers is so dull and emotionless that I found myself appreciating the nuances of Dornan’s performance in comparison. Surprisingly, Eric Johnson’s portrayal of the two-faced and perhaps too aptly named Hyde was the most charismatic performance in the film. This could be good news for the franchise as his villainous character is set to return in the next installment, “Fifty Shades Freed.”
Though “Darker” is an improvement over its predecessor, all but the most avid “Fifty Shades” fans would be wise to avoid this shallow Hollywood cash grab.