Perhaps there’s a world where Fifty Shades Darker could be a better movie. In some other universe, a screenwriter would choose to lean into the toxic absurdities of E.L. James’ story, turning a faux-risque romance novel into a camp classic and cautionary tale — Reefer Madness, but with Ben Wa balls. In another, a writer-director might attempt to elevate the source material, dissecting the stigmas surrounding kink or the countless ways in which some men attempt to control the women in their lives. Alas, this is the world we’re stuck with, and this is the Fifty Shades sequel we get: dull at best, damaging at worst, and not worth a moment of your time.
It’s also not remotely titillating, and given what it says on the tin, that’s the greatest of all possible sins. The bestselling Fifty Shades trilogy first got hot as an e-book phenomenon, allowing women to read all about Ana and Christian’s dalliances without having to show those awful covers to the world. The books were something of a secret shared between women, a guilty pleasure shared with a knowing smile and a “thank me later.” There are huge issues with Fifty Shades Darker, from inexplicable structural choices to dialogue as sharp as a moist towelette, but there’s no greater problem than its near-total lack of sex appeal. There are Law and Order episodes with more heat. Give us bland characters if you must, take no risks and ask no questions, but for the love of God, can’t the people have something that will help them get off?
The plot, such as it is, picks up shortly after the events of the first film, with the newly-single Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) starting a new job for a publishing company, working as the assistant to fiction editor and first-class sleaze Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). She runs into Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at a friend’s photography show, and he begs her to come back, promising that things will be different this time. For reasons beyond understanding, she says yes, and nothing that happens following their reunion — not the appearance of a crazed former submissive (Bella Heathcote), or a hissy fit about a business trip, or any of the other glaring red flags — ever makes it seem remotely likely that their relationship will end. Even an absurdly contrived helicopter crash is just a bump on the road to what we’re meant to believe is a happy ending.
This isn’t the first love story to traffic in troubling romantic clichés (see: nearly every fairy tale involving a princess, for starters), but even by those standards, Darker is something special. Sure, James and screenwriter Niall Leonard seem to suggest, Christian Grey is super controlling. Sure, he’s also paranoid and emotionally disturbed, with some truly unsettling ideas about what constitutes a relationship. On top of all that, he’s kinky. But don’t worry, they tell us. It’s just because he’s an abuse survivor who hasn’t found the right woman yet. The film makes a show of giving Ana more agency in their relationship this time around — she’ll order her own dinner, thanks — but the match we’re asked to believe is somehow written in the stars never feels anything but deeply and undeniably fucked up. And that’s true long before it gets to the part where we’re told that Ana looks like his dead mother.
In Christian Grey’s defense, he’s not the only handsome guy in Ana’s life who treats her like garbage. As Jack Hyde, Eric Johnson gives a performance worthy of one of the most absurdly named villains since Snidley Whiplash; apparently, naming him Jekyll would have been a bridge too far. In one of the only scenes in the film in which anything at all seems to be at stake, Hyde subjects Ana to a truly upsetting assault, an offense that’s made worse and more forgettable by the fact that neither Christian nor her close friend seem to think that consent is important. The film goes to great lengths to establish Jack as a menacing villain, but there’s simply not enough going on to make such an investment worthwhile.
Still, the odds are slim that audiences will turn up hoping for a finely-told story. It’s the promise of sex, romance, and beautiful people in and out of their clothes that will draw ‘em in droves. There’s little of note to report in the first two categories — as with the first film, Johnson and Dornan have about as much chemistry as a box of Wheat Thins being blindfolded by a box of Triscuits, and their romantic scenes pack even less punch than their sexual encounters. Still, that third category offers a few small pleasures. While director James Foley seems devoted to expunging any of the tawdry wit that made predecessor Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film occasionally close to bearable, he does have a notable eye for visuals, capturing the beauty of his stars as well as the Pacific Northwest with reverence. He also gets a hell of an assist from costume designer Shay Cunliffe, who gives Ana a masquerade ball dress you’ll be seeing in drag shows any second now.
Still, the film’s most redeeming quality is also that which makes it so frustrating. Dakota Johnson rises well above the quality of the material, and any scene that does work has her to thank. The single sexiest moment of the film involves her leaning in a doorframe and ogling Christian as he works out. The film’s most electric scene sees her square off against Kim Basinger, the pair soon joined by Marcia Gay Harden (who plays Christian’s mother), and that trio nearly sets the room on fire. For a brief moment, Fifty Shades Darker feels more like Dynasty than The Notebook. There’s a slap, and a dropped napkin, and a thrown drink, and it’s the best kind of shade (pun intended).
Then it’s over, and we’re again left with a film in which women are both prized and owned, but never truly let loose. Johnson deserves a better movie. So do the people who devoured James’ books. Female audiences may hunger for something tawdry, and made just for them, but Fifty Shades Darker isn’t it. It’s not smart or romantic, and it sure as hell isn’t sexy. It’s just sad, and it’ll make a fortune.