HBO News Blog

Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

By Ellie Wilkin-Smith on Nov 20, 2015 to New Movies

The biggest problem with  Fifty Shades of Grey is not in its content, characterization or storyline (although these are all problems in their own right to some degree) it’s in its promise and reputation that this is going to be a very kinky, erotic, passionate, sexually explicit drama and it completely fails to live up to that. It plays out like a middle aged woman’s fantasy that she has quickly jotted down on a Twilight fan fiction website without giving it a single creative thought apart from in the potentially extreme erotic desires of our protagonist, Christian Grey. Oh, wait. That is exactly what it is.

I have not read the book or been in anyway remotely interested in the franchise because as an avid lover of great literature I was warned away from it simply from the vast critical response that it was terribly written. However, my fears regarding the creative integrity of the book are confirmed very quickly within the first few scenes of the film where Anastasia Steel meets Christian Grey for the first time and she is so overwhelming taken by him she feels the need to breathe heavily through a seductively opened mouth just from being in his presence and subsequently needs to catch her breath outside on the street in a moment apparently fueled by erotic tension.


The storyline is simple and massively compromised for the sake of building sexual tension. Anastasia Steel, a college student goes to Seattle to interview the 27 year old billionaire Christian Grey for her college newspaper. She is a frumpy, timid, dull, softly spoken girl full of innocence and naivety and her encounter with Grey is very strange in that they are kind of coldly flirting with each other, which I think was supposed to seem playful, but as both characters are devoid of any personality its very flat and odd. Anyway, Grey somehow becomes a bit obsessed with her, something to do with her fascinating personality I imagine, and asks her to be his submissive in return for his devotion to her. Basically, he practices BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission and sadomasochism) and he wants her to agree to allow him to do whatever he wants to her in this room with these devices and in return she gets his complete devotion to her. He asks her to sign a contract, which despite engaging in some of these acts, she never actually signs. She falls in love with him which he responds to by showing her what he really means when he likes to engage in these acts, and with her consent, whips her with a belt six times. Somehow she can’t believe what he has just done to her so she leaves the apartment, heartbroken.

The trouble with a fantasy is that you fixate on one thing within that fantasy, so for E.L James, it was the fantasy of being a billionaires submissive and engaging in some BDSM. So as a result, every other aspect of the film was glossed over because it isn’t important to how the fantasy is going to play out, Ana and Christian are just vessels for scenarios to be played out through. Likewise with a fantasy, it’s all very unrealistic. I mean, if a stranger invited you to their apartment and asked you to sign a non-disclosure agreement then told you that they take great pleasure in engaging in BDSM and would like you to be their submissive and you have to live in their house for four days a week in a separate room, you don’t get to date them and you don’t get to sleep with them and whenever they tell you to you have to put yourself in a potentially dangerous situation where you might get hurt. Would you stick around? I would be out the door in sixty seconds. Her curiosity got the better of her though and she completely fell for his charms and he seemed to fall for her too as he would quite often break his own rules he has for when he commits himself to a new submissive. However, despite him introducing her to the wacky world of sex that he enjoyed the most she refused to believe that she couldn’t change him into the perfect boyfriend.


The scene at the end of the film when Christian whips Ana with a belt as punishment for her behavior bothers me intensely. She asked him to show her the worst kind of punishment he could ever give her so she can see exactly what he is capable of doing and how much he enjoys it. He tells her what he is going to do and he gives her the choice to leave. He provides her with safe words so he can stop at any time yet she sees it through, in tears. She explodes at him afterwards seeing him as a monster and she fights him off when he tries to impose himself on her. It shows an element of growth in her character, I just don’t really get why it happened. He told her what he liked to do, his ‘playroom’ looks like a torture chamber, he very gently uses some of his items on her in the film and he repeatedly talks about how much he likes this kind of stuff yet she seemed shocked that he whipped her with a belt and took pleasure from it.  It annoyed me. If she hadn’t been so jaded by the possibility of him falling in love with her then she would have listened to him when he explains the intricacies of his dark sexual desires.

I don’t know much about BDSM but I do know that the people who practice it, take it very seriously and there is particular emphasis on consent and safe words when engaging in these acts. It’s a very interesting channel of the human sexual desire which is not often frequented by film makers for fear of not being able to make a rated film and this felt like a cheapened attempt at journeying into that world. I don’t know if the book goes much further than the film did, but what was in the film was incredibly tame and not that far removed from the kind of stuff that a lot of couples playfully engage in. I imagine the world of BDSM to be far darker than what was shown in  Fifty Shades of Grey and despite promising so much, it delivers a meager 14 minutes of sex scenes in its 2 hour, 9 minute duration. I was expecting much, much more. Quality over quantity you might be thinking? No, the first sex scene when Grey takes Ana’s virginity is so horribly uncomfortable to watch that I felt very tense and uneasy and not even remotely ramped up for the rest of the film. Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson have absolutely zero chemistry so a sex scene like this that was supposed to be sensual and passionate just feels awkward and uncomfortable. I’m wincing even writing about it. Things do get a bit steamier later on but Dakota Johnson is so annoying and Jamie Dornan is so wooden (pardon the phrase) that it just feels totally unrealistic and you just don’t really care enough about them both to feel anything for them.


Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t a bad film per se, it just isn’t the film you are expecting. It’s a strangely paced romantic drama with a couple of reasonable edgy sex scenes thrown in. Nothing really happens in it and most of the time it’s just boring exchanges of conversation delivered without any passion or veracity. One thing I did really like about it was the way the relationship between Ana and Christian developed, it was the most interesting thing about the film and had it been solely about that and ventured further into the depths of their developing relationship then it would have been quite good but the three parts were basically Christian telling Ana what kind of sex he wants to have with her, her spending ages deciding whether or not she wants to get involved and then getting involved and deciding she didn’t like it. That really is about it. However, there were little moments that were really lovely and were reminiscent of most adult relationships, allowing the viewer to relate to them which is what makes those moments so special. A lot of woman have fantasized about being whisked away by a handsome stranger but we aren’t going to turn those fantasies into a franchise and neither should have E.L James. One cool thing I did notice was the two songs out of its overly poppy soundtrack were also used in the film Hocus Pocus which just goes to show how engrossed by the storyline I was. There was also way too much lip biting, face touching and heavy breathing for me.

Don’t expect too much and you might quite enjoy it. It’s a fairly gentle romantic drama that errs on the side of caution and doesn’t venture as far into the dark world of BDSM as you are expecting it to. It could have been so much more had the writer and director had the courage to explore some more challenging themes. The lead characters are pretty easy on the eyes so that should help to distract you from the one dimensional acting and to keep you interested, there is some pretty strange CGI-ed pubic hair to look out for. You can judge for yourself when the movie debuts SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21 at 8:00pm. Check out the trailer and see if you can find any chemistry?

  • I totally agree. Just saw it on HBO and cannot believe how mediocre it was. The film does not live up to it’s promise at all. Sorry I watched.

Find an HBO Series

More HBO

Subscribe to HBO
Countries HBO Is In
Watch Game of Thrones Online
Watch The Leftovers Online
Watch Silicon Valley Online
HBO Premiere & Air Dates
True Detective Streaming
Other Streaming Television
HBO Boxing Live Stream
Game of Thrones on DVD & Blu-Ray
Watch Cinemax Online