Well, here we are again. Another Valentine's Day, another instalment of the most-hyped 'love' story ever told. And more devastatingly for me, another chance to experience the excruciating awkwardness of buying a ticket for a Fifty Shades movie.
For those of you shocked that a Christian would even choose to see his film, let me offer a summary version of my arguments from two years ago. Lots of Christians will instinctively react and protest against a film which apparently glamourises abuse and pornographises sex, but if none of us has actually seen it, we're always in danger of creating straw-man arguments and phantom threats. Someone has to see it to be able to inform others from an educated position, and as Christian Today's resident film reviewer, that thankless task falls to me.
Here's the short review then. Fifty Shades Darker does indeed glamourise abusive behaviour, and reduces romantic relationships to little more than sex, which is a pretty good definition of pornography. So if you wanted the green light to feel angry that the film exists, there it is. Unlike the first film, which at least tried (thanks to the work of director Sam Taylor Johnson) to hold sadistic main character Christian Grey to account, this is a far less nuanced adaptation of E L James' gazillion-selling fanfic behemoth. The ethics in James Foley's follow-up are as damaged as the central character himself.
But if you're interested, there's plenty more to feel grumpy about. For a start, it's just a really, really bad film. Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, playing Grey and his victim Ana, are both fine young actors. Yet each looks utterly horrified to be somewhat ironically trapped in this three-film dungeon, having to enact the cliche-ridden script and play out a continuously dull plot. There's actually a gay Italian hairdresser who says 'Ciao bella!' It's basically a clunky series of conversations in rooms between the two leads, interspersed with the book's trademark sex scenes. Oh, and a helicopter accident which they somehow manage to make really, really boring.
The subject of these conversations is Christian's attempts to shift from being a woman-hating sadist to a normal well adjusted man in a 'vanilla' relationship. But as the film plays out his slow conversion towards being a man who is able to have actual conversations with his girlfriend, it tries to give him a free pass on a whole host of abusive and controlling behaviours. Even as we're led to believe he's changing, he's still up to his own tricks: he has her followed and photographed, he forces money, clothing choices and hairstyles upon her, and sends his mysterious and extremely creepy team of 'people' out looking for her the moment he doesn't know her whereabouts. Because she consents to their sexual relationship, and is the person who advances that side of their interaction, the film seems to be suggesting that all of this other stuff is fine; that she's basically complicit in it. As such, I think it's still an apologetic for domestic abuse.
Perhaps the most important factor in this is the presence of Eric Johnson as Ana's creepy boss Jack, whose rejected affections turn nasty, to the point that he begins to demand sexual attention from her. By creating this pantomime baddie who is so clearly an abuser, and so clearly not consented to, the film subtly tries to shift Christian into a comparably positive light. Sure, he's no angel – but at least he's not a potential rapist...
Despite being a victim of Christian's twisted and financially-enabled dysfunction, Ana is also an incredibly frustrating character. It's not Johnson's fault, but Ana is a hollow, one-dimensional woman with co-dependency issues, who inexplicably decides to re-enter Grey's world after swearing off him at the end of the first film. This happens within minutes of their re-introduction, after he buys an artist's entire collection of photos of her (interestingly exhibited without her consent), and then basically says: "oh go on, please." From that point forward, she's really only interested in two elements of their relationship: trying to 'fix' her broken narcissist, and having sex with him. She's little more than a male fantasy – an archaically-diminished view of the modern woman, given an impressive job and a few lines which make her sound like a genius, but basically just characterised by being hot.
The sex itself is what it is. The film is an 18-certificate, and the sexual scenes are frequent and fairly graphic by Hollywood standards. Yet I'm not sure there's much wrong with them in themselves; I certainly don't think that Christians should be focusing on getting upset about them in a world where children as young as 9 can access hardcore porn on a phone. What's more troubling is that really, the film suggests that sex isn't just the key to a good relationship, but the entire substance of one. And in that way, it's much like the pornography that is starting to shape our younger generations' sexual behaviour. If the church says anything about the sex in Fifty Shades, it should be mourning the context in which it is set.
Fifty Shades Darker is a film which tries to make abusive, controlling behaviour sexy, and tries to make millions of dollars from what is once again a really bad piece of art. Back in the 1990s, Foley made the brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross, so it's not that he's not capable of better. Perhaps the source material really is beyond redemption.
I'm with the protestors who picketed the film's London premiere, trying to raise awareness of the serious ethical flaws in the story. And while I don't think we should waste our time speaking out on the way indecent cinema is sending us all to hell in a handcart, I do believe there are some issues here that are worth fighting for. Christians should stand against a pornographic view of sex, Christians should stand against abusive and controlling behaviour, and frankly, Christians should stand against bad art.
In the packed cinema I attended, I counted only a handful of cowering males. And at the end, I'm pretty sure I was one of the only people who wasn't smiling and laughing (and not just at the fact they try to claim Jamie Dornan's character is 27). The fact that on a mainstream popular scale, a subtly abusive relationship is being normalised and even made heroic, matters. Christians should really care about that, and resolve to modelling and talking about healthy relationships in both our pulpits and our everyday lives. With one more Fifty Shades film yet to come next Valentine's Day, the world needs more people who are prepared to say that love is about more than sex, and that abusive behaviour never gets a free pass, no matter how sexy you try to make the people committing it.