Fifty Shades of Grey (3 stars)

Fifty Shades of Grey

Adaptation of EL James' sadomasochist sensation looks set to dominate cinemas

Whatever your thoughts on EL James' S&M bonkbusters they've certainly set pulses racing with their admirably frank exploration of female desire; and they've now put sex back on the big screen in a pretty emphatic fashion, with Sam Taylor-Johnson's take on the first in the trilogy, rather appropriately, pushing the boundaries of how far commercial cinema is willing to go.

There's plenty of sex here but – bearing in mind the limitations of the medium and the modesty of the performers – it's nowhere near as explicit as the scenes in the novel, so the film's chief weapon in its bid to win us over is the emotionally immediate, immediately likeable Dakota Johnson. She occasionally overdoes the girlishness but delivers a persuasive performance that's enough to make you both believe in, and care about what happens here.

Johnson plays Anastasia Steele, a 21-year-old English Literature scholar who's about to graduate university when she's swept off her feet by mysterious billionaire Christian Grey (The Fall's Jamie Dornan), who introduces her to his 'singular' sexual tastes, which ultimately involves him tying her up and spanking her as she becomes his submissive.

Even discounting the pornographic nature of its major selling point, there are a number of problems with adapting the source material: its troubling gender politics; the fact that Grey comes across like a psychotic dick; a distinct lack of plot and an abrupt ending. Furthermore, reading the book is like taking a trip to La La Land – the attractive heroine who's never been properly kissed, the enigmatic Adonis that falls only for her, the endless wealth porn – with characters and a premise that are hard to buy even if you hit your brain's off switch.

Although Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have thrown out a lot of the book's trash, all but the most credulous will still find plenty to roll their eyes at. However, Johnson's ability to bring nuance and charm to a paper-thin character and Dornan's hint of humanity give substance to a film which otherwise has the integrity and insight of an advert. Meanwhile Danny Elfman's score infuses proceedings with the befitting air of a dark fairytale, and the production design and cinematography are suitably elegant – ensuring Grey's world is as smart and seductive as the man himself. It's still the same daft, disconcerting story wrapped up in glitter and bows (or should that be PVC and chains?) but the film dwells less on the dubiousness, toning down Grey's controlling behaviour.

A bolder hand to really bring out the sinister side of events would have been welcome, as would an interventionist approach to the largely faithful – i.e. sometimes dreadful – dialogue. But, given the constraints and need to please its considerable fan-base, this sleek, fairly trim and occasionally sensual adaptation is the best imaginable outcome. How much you actually enjoy Fifty Shades of Grey will depend on just how willing you are to surrender yourself to its mad fantasy.

General release from Fri 13 Feb.

Fifty Shades Of Grey - Official Trailer (Universal Pictures) HD

Fifty Shades of Grey

  • 3 stars
  • 2015
  • US
  • 2h 5min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Sam Taylor-Johnson
  • Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Jennifer Ehle
  • UK release: 13 February 2015

Despite its troubling gender politics and distinct lack of plot, the likeable Johnson brings nuance and charm to a paper-thin character; Dornan manages to offer a hint of humanity; and given the many constraints, this sleek, fairly trim and occasionally sensual adaptation is the best imaginable outcome.