Fifty Shades Darker, like many sequels, is even more ambitious than its predecessor. Where Fifty Shades of Grey featured two dead-eyed people with no chemistry having lots of kinky sex, the new film is a marvel of technology: two lifeless (and soulless) computer-generated figures now stand in for the leads, reading a text assembled by a computer from various Harlequin romance novels and BDSM guides (much more impressive than the first film’s CGI pubic hair). At least that’s how the movie seems.
In reality, Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson are still playing Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, respectively, but most of the life has been sucked out of them. The movie opens an undisclosed amount of time after the first film abruptly ended. Anastasia is a professional reader for a Seattle publishing company. You can tell her boss is going to be trouble when he shamelessly flirts with her right in front of the HR lady.
Aside from a child abuse nightmare early in the film, Christian is mostly absent in the first part of the movie. He doesn’t connect with Anastasia until she shows up at a photography exhibition where she learns that her friend Jose is exhibiting multiple giant portraits of her. (“That is, like, so much of my face.”) The movie never bothers to investigate Jose’s creepy attraction to Anastasia, possibly because Christian bests it by showing up and purchasing every single portrait. Previously clean shaven, now Christian sports an artfully maintained stubble and a hoodie to make it obvious that he’s suffering from too much emotional turmoil to shave or dress himself in the morning. Dornan was previously best known for playing a serial murderer of women on The Fall, and his Christian Grey isn’t all that dissimilar from the psychopathic killer. His moments of tenderness often seem more menacing than romantic. Dornan’s attempt at an American accent never gets too far from his Irish brogue, instead producing some kind of new, sterile hybrid. It’s a wonder of nature that would never be able to reproduce in the wild.
Although Anastasia sounded like she was done with Christian for good after their parting in the first film, she ends up being a bit of a pushover. (“I’ll have dinner with you … because I’m hungry.”) It’s obvious that Christian’s need for power and dominance hasn’t abated at all when he orders their food without even consulting her. But he tells a sob story about how his dead mother was an addict, and Anastasia forgets most of her objections.
They restart their relationship, just with a little less kinky sex than before. Fifty Shades Darker has a number of often ridiculous plot developments ripped from thrillers, but the film spends most of its energy on inconsequential domestic arguments about moving in together, birthday parties, and other things no one cares about. Important characters almost die twice in the film, but more weight is put on scenes where Anastasia and Christian argue about why he won’t sleep in the same bed with her at night. (Maybe he snores.)
If Christian is a heartless psychopath, Anastasia isn’t much better; there’s never really a sense that she’s her own person. Part of that is because author E. L. James didn’t bother with much character development in her gazillion-selling novels. But even Dakota Johnson isn’t able to create any interior life through her performance. It’s a shame, especially since Johnson was so skilled at developing a somewhat mysterious character (who is also nude a lot) in the excellent A Bigger Splash from last year. Screenwriter Niall Leonard, who just happens to be married to James, doesn’t do Anastasia any favors either. In a clumsy attempt at creating a backstory, he attributes her long-held virginity to men never matching the standards set by characters in Jane Austen and the Brontës, a laughable line that shows how stunted Anastasia’s (and perhaps the writer’s) English lit education was. But it also makes us question how Christian possibly measures up to those fictional men. He lacks their charm and wit. The only thing he seems to have in common is his (unexplained) wealth.
Perhaps Fifty Shades Darker could have approached competence had the film not been hijacked by James. The first film’s director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, was replaced by James Foley for the sequels after James, who also produced the films, required Taylor-Johnson to steer closer to the tone and style of the books. It’s not the wisest move to require a film to imitate its widely reviled source material. Taylor-Johnson’s film wasn’t much better, but Dornan and Johnson were less stone-faced, and a bit of necessary color occasionally intruded among the drab scenery. A few shades of gray are fine, but all fifty is overkill.
Like the first movie, Fifty Shades Darker doesn’t so much end as just stop dead in its tracks. It’s an unwieldy ending befitting such an ungainly film. And plenty of viewers won’t mind at all—all they’re looking for is a visual representation of the novel’s sex scenes. But two hours of nothing but robots fucking would have been an improvement over this film. It might have actually had some passion.