DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Under the pen name Snowqueens Icedragon, former British television executive E L James wrote a series of stories on the Internet inspired by the "Twilight Saga," stories that became the basis of her bondage-infused novel "50 Shades Of Grey." The first book in her phenomenally best-selling trilogy is now a film, starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I am not a masochist. That's why I couldn't bring myself, until the day before I saw the movie, to read E L James's S&M romance "50 Shades Of Grey," which began as fanfiction, meaning published online for free, and in a better world would've stayed that way. This is writing so painful it leaves welts. Fortunately, it didn't take long to get the gist. Bookish, virginal narrator Anastasia Steele needs someone to liberate her from her cocoon while the object of her ardor, sleek billionaire Christian Grey, needs someone to liberate him from his need to dominate, which compels him to maintain a so-called playroom filled with whips and machines for doing I don't know what.
Though the film has already been denounced by decency brigades, remove the bondage element and you're left with the stuff of a million corny romances in which good women try to help male control freaks lower their defenses and open themselves up to love. Media sadists have long predicted that the film would be an epic turkey, their hopes stoked by a publicity tour in which stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan basically owned up to loathing each other. The bad news for haters is the movie doesn't stink. The direction by Sam Taylor-Johnson, a woman, is sensitive, at times even elegant. And Dakota Johnson is extraordinary. The biggest surprise is how mild it is. Even more than the book, the film is a powerful affirmation of traditional values. It's "Jane Eyre" with ropes. Anastasia is enlisted by her flu-ridden roommate, a journalist for their college paper, to interview the forbidding Mr. Grey and goes tottering into his high-in-the-skyscraper office. She trips, then rises up to gaze through her blue eyes upon our master of the universe, who is also an Adonis. Or rather, he's supposed to be.
Dornan was cast at the last minute when another actor bolted, and he cuts a less-than-commanding figure. I came to like his earnest, straight-ahead performance, but it's clear he's not sending much heat Johnson's way. And she's having to work herself up in a vacuum. This she does magnificently. She's the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson and has the gift of emotional transparency. You see the cost to her, even in a dumb scene like the one where she wakes up in Christian's hotel bed. She'd gotten drunk at a nightclub and he'd rescued her. And now she asks the shirtless billionaire about, among other things, the first editions he'd sent her of some Thomas Hardy novels.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "50 SHADES OF GREY")
DAKOTA JOHNSON: (As Anastasia Steele) Why am I here, Christian?
JAMIE DORNAN: (As Christian Grey) You're here because I'm incapable of leaving you alone.
JOHNSON: (As Anastasia Steele) Then don't. Why'd you send me those books?
DORNAN: (As Christian Grey) I thought I owed you an apology.
JOHNSON: (As Anastasia Steele) For what?
DORNAN: (As Christian Grey) For letting believe that I - listen to me, I don't do romance. My tastes are very singular. You wouldn't understand.
JOHNSON: (As Anastasia Steele) Enlighten me then.
EDELSTEIN: Before I get to those singular tastes, the most entertaining parts of "50 Shades Of Grey" are the negotiations that proceed their coupling. Christian hands Anastasia a long contract spelling out what can happen in that playroom. And Anastasia strikes out clauses and then announces, after all the back and forth, that she needs to go home and think some more. It's she who has the reins, and her refusal to sign the contract is the key to the film's dramatic and comic power. It's also, alas, the key to its libido-killing running time - my God, it goes on. Nothing about those eventual playroom scenes struck me as particularly shocking, except maybe the preponderance of female frontal nudity and the complete absence of male. More to the point, those who fear "50 Shades Of Grey" will be a commercial for S&M, or the newer, more inclusive acronym BDSM, will find something rather moralistic. Here, even Christian's mindful, spelled-out sex play isn't portrayed as healthy. It's a sign that he's angry, tormented, sick. I doubt the film's actual content will stop talk show hosts from leading squirmy discussions about the social perils of what turns out to be a conventional love story. Here's a better topic for discussion - in a culture where every other movie features a hero racking up a serial killer-worthy body count, it's a film with consensual rough play and a lot of earnest talk that draws the most blood.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On the next FRESH AIR, for President's Day, we revisit the story of two presidents, two political parties and the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We talk with Todd Purdum, author of the new book "An Idea Whose Time Has Come."