The last time we saw Anastasia “Ana” Steele (Dakota Johnson) she was done with the whips, chains and all the other trappings of her relationship with slap and tickle devotee Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Her romantic expectations spoiled, it looked like that was the end of the story. But this weekend, just in advance of Valentine’s Day, the two are back together, this time playing (mostly) by her rules.
Depending on your point of view “Fifty Shades of Grey” either made you want to gag or want to wear a gag. It’s a softcore look at hardcore BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) that spanked the competition on its opening weekend in 2015. Question is, will audiences still care about Grey’s proclivities and Ana’s misgivings or is it time to use our collective safeword?
The nighttime soap opera-esque “Fifty Shades Darker” begins shortly after Ana walks out on Christian but this isn’t “Titanic” where class issues and an iceberg keep the lovers apart or “Brokeback Mountain” where out-dated social mores conspired against the characters. This is “Fifty Shades Darker” and there is no story unless Ana and Christian are in the same frame. So boom, they’re back together. They “meet creepy” at a photo exhibit where Ana’s friend has displayed bigger-than-life portraits of her. Christian buys them all and convinces her to have dinner. “I’ll have dinner with you,” she says, “but only because I’m hungry.”
Over expensive entrees and wine they discuss moving forward. “I want you back,” he says. “I’d like to renegotiate the terms. What happened last time won’t happen again.” That means no collars or flogging. Ana says she wants a “vanilla relationship,” and he agrees but before you can say “ballgag” she’s asking for various kinky acts to be performed upon her naughty bits.
Soon he asks her to move into his ultra-modern bachelor pad. She breathily says yes but unfortunately other women—his sexual mentor Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger) and Leila Williams (Bella Heathcote), a former submissive—cast a shadow over their relationship. “Do you think you’re the first woman who has tried to save him?” asks Elena.
There’s more, but who really cares about these two? Johnson and Dornan share so little chemistry they couldn’t smoulder if you lit their underwear on fire. To be fair they are cut adrift in a sea of kinky sex, mommy porn, dime store psychology and bad dialogue most of which only serves to move the film along from one spanking montage to the next. Stymied by plotting that makes most Harlequins seem like Dostoyevsky, the actors frequently shed their clothes, most likely in an attempt to distract from the truly awful things that happen when they are clothed.
Johnson is still a charming presence and Dornan slightly less wooden than last time out, but Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart couldn’t bring exchanges like this to life: “Why didn’t you tell me that?” she asks after a big revelation. “I did but you were asleep at the time.” “A big part of a relationship is that both parties have to be conscious.”
“Fifty Shades Darker” is a cold shower of a movie. “It’s all wrong,” Ana says at one point. “All of this is wrong.” Truer words have never been spoken.