Posts Tagged ‘Jamie Dornan’

It seems like a long time since Kenneth Branagh was routinely being compared with Laurence Olivier, a somewhat unimaginative point-of-reference that Branagh probably got a bit sick of, despite having really brought it on himself (starring in and directing an adaptation of Henry V before his 30th birthday and all). These days he seems to have happily carved out his own niche, with a profile which is closer to that of someone like Albert Finney – a brilliant actor, happy to lend his thesping muscle to unashamedly mainstream and commercial projects. Then again, Branagh also has am impressive record as a director, sometimes of rather unexpected projects – although in his work for Disney (he was in charge of the first Thor and the live-action Cinderella) any distinctiveness Branagh-ness he brought to the films is quite well concealed.

Then again, Branagh seems to subscribe to a ‘one for them, one for me’ philosophy when picking his projects, alternating big, well-remunerated fare with smaller, more distinctive films (the former helping to fund the latter). Branagh even seemed to acknowledge this himself in 1996’s In the Bleak Midwinter, a tale of a talented actor burnt out by too much vacuous Hollywood pap, who takes refuge in doing a tiny production of Hamlet (a film which immediately followed Branagh’s high-profile but not entirely successful version of Frankenstein).

The director now finds himself in the curious position of having had a completed film on the shelf for quite some time – a sequel to his outlandishly moustachioed performance as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, which has been waiting for the cinema market to recover and an appropriate release juncture to open up. In the meantime he has gone off and made a whole different film, which is clearly a ‘one for me’ project – indeed, perhaps the most personal film of his career.

The film is Belfast, which Branagh also wrote. After some vibrant images of the city as it appears today, the setting shifts back to August 1969, and the eruption of sectarian violence in a previously quiet street: Protestant rioters attempting to intimidate and drive out Catholic families. The incident is part of a series of events which results in the British army being deployed on the streets of the city and an increase in tension both between and within the different communities.

Largely oblivious to all this is Buddy (Jude Hill), a nine-year-old boy living in the neighbourhood with his family. Life is not exactly a rose garden for them – back taxes are a crushing burden even before the increase in violence, and Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) has to work in England to pay the bills – but they are surrounded by friends and family, deeply rooted in the city.

Much of the film is made up of vignettes and other incidents from Buddy’s life, and with detailing his relationship with his mother (Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds). The tone is warm and affectionate, with plenty of humour – but the tensions in the city and the rise of the criminal gangs that would eventually declare themselves as loyalist paramilitaries are never far from the story.

I found Belfast to be an interesting and very likeable film, and quite engaging; if I had to point out a flaw in it, it’s that it feels like two quite different films which have been stitched together slightly awkwardly – there’s the autobiographical this-boy’s-life stuff, which is clearly drawn from Branagh’s own recollections (he himself turned nine in 1969) and has a tender, bitter-sweet quality to it, but also the virtually-obligatory story elements about the early years of the Troubles. This is by no means poorly done, but it does feel a bit rote in places. Most of the film is seen from Buddy’s perspective – many scenes feature frequent cutaways to Jude Hill, looking on in delight or bemusement – but some of the political discussions and confrontations function on a level where they don’t feel like they’ve been mediated by Buddy’s perceptions of them.

Of course, part of the message of the film is that the Troubles (a rather coy euphemism for what was, for many years, essentially a low-intensity civil war) is an inescapable part of the history of anyone living in Northern Ireland at the time. Branagh isn’t one of those people who makes a virtue of his Irishness, but this is because his family was one of the many who left Belfast to escape the violence; he grew up in England (where, one assumes, he learned to get rid of his accent rather quickly). Perhaps this film is an acknowledgement of heritage as much as anything else.

As I say, it does work better as a reminiscence about childhood. In this respect at least, it reminded me in some ways of Roma from a few years ago, although perhaps on a less-expansive scale. The main point of similarity, of course, is that both films are made in the same kind of lustrous black-and-white which is guaranteed to make virtually anything look a bit arty and significant. The closest thing to a distinctive artistic decision in the film is that when the family go to the cinema or theatre, whatever they’re watching appears in its original format – so High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are also in black and white, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and One Million Years BC drench the screen with gorgeous technicolour. (When they watch a play it’s also in colour, for some reason.)

You could argue that the film is perhaps a little too prone to getting sentimental and indulging in whimsical Irish humour, but the performances are good enough to sell this – it’s also worth mentioning that, quite apart from the situation with the sectarian violence, the stresses and tensions within the family are treated quite unflinchingly, so this isn’t quite a wholly rose-tinted account of childhood. It certainly tends that way, though, and the audience at the screening I attended certainly seemed to appreciate it as such – perhaps the presence of a national treasure like the Dench in a warm family comedy-drama will serve to lure people into a film which does, in the end, serve as something of a reminder of a dark period in British history, and touches on not usually commercial topics. If this was Branagh’s intention it suggests a wiliness I would not usually have associated with him, but he is clearly a clever and talented man. Belfast should do nothing but bolster his reputation.

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Every producer hopes his film is going to at least make its money back, probably, but with some of them this is more of a priority than others. As I have suggested over the last few days, there are films which are funded (if not made) largely with a view to winning awards for their producers and financiers. When one of these films fails to cut through, then, should we automatically consider it a failure? I’m not sure. One of the things I like to believe, sentimental old thing though I may be, is that any good film will eventually find an audience for itself.

What got me thinking along these lines was Matthew Heineman’s A Private War, which is clearly the kind of film which wants to be taken seriously, but which doesn’t quite seem to be cutting through and reaching a mainstream audience like some others. This may be simply due to the subject matter, which largely consists of things which people don’t want to be reminded of, and may indeed be actively trying to forget.

I think I’ve mentioned in the past my occasional tendency to get the Prime Minister of Canada (Justin Trudeau) mixed up with the guy who wrote Iron Man 2 (Justin Theroux); well, I have a similar problem with Marie Helvin (American-born British-based fashionista) and Marie Colvin (American-born British-based war correspondent), too. A Private War should certainly help with the latter issue, being an account of the final years of Colvin’s life.

Rosamund Pike plays Colvin, who as the film starts has been a reporter for the London Sunday Times for about fifteen years. The thing that made Colvin instantly identifiable was the fact she wore an eye-patch, and the attentive viewer will note at once that Colvin’s eyes are both in full working order in the opening scenes. This occasioned a queasy feeling of tension in your correspondent, i.e. me, rather akin to the one I felt during All the Money in the World while waiting for the ear-removal scene: something grisly is inevitably coming.

One does not have to wait too long, as Colvin’s next mission – rather against the wishes of her editor (Tom Hollander) – is to visit rebel forces in Sri Lanka, in full knowledge of the reality that if she is caught by government forces she will be executed. In the course of her work she and her escort are ambushed and a grenade ends her days of stereoscopic vision. Her friends rally round and try to cheer her up by listing other famous people with only one eye: Sammy Davis Jr, Thom Yorke, Moshe Dayan, and so on (no-one mentions Lt. Columbo, oddly enough). Soon enough the iconic eye-patch is in place.

Any sane person would have had enough of putting life and limb in peril at this point, but Colvin goes back to work, and the rest of the film intersperses scenes from her somewhat turbulent life in the UK with a succession of visits to places virtually comprising a record of recent real-world horror: Iraq during the American invasion, Afghanistan during the American occupation, Libya during the Arab Spring uprising, and finally Syria in the early stages of the civil war which is still ongoing. You probably know how the story ends; even if you don’t, it’s easy enough to find out.

With any film based on a true story that has an ending as downbeat as this one, it’s fairly obvious that simply entertaining the audience is not necessarily the object of the exercise. This is frequently quite an uncomfortable watch on many levels, for reasons both visceral and intellectual – the film dwells at length on the conflict in Syria, something which I think future generations will view as a cause of profound shame for western nations for so many reasons.

That the film stays watchable is largely down to the kind of central performance from Rosamund Pike which generally gets called vanity-free, whatever that is really code for. Colvin was reputedly a tough cookie and a difficult woman to get along with, a heavy drinker, a chain-smoker and at one time a sufferer from PTSD (as one character observes, she’s been through more wars than most soldiers), and Pike works hard to get all this up on the screen. The results are undeniably impressive.

(Maybe we should take a moment to reflect on the achievement of Rosamund Pike in establishing herself as a serious, credible actress entirely capable of carrying a movie like this one, especially since she first rose to prominence as Second Girl in a Bond movie – something which always used to be a career graveyard. No doubt it owes something to her willingness to take on roles which are, shall we say, less emollient than those that many American actresses seem entirely comfortable with.)

Pike’s main support comes from Jamie Dornan, playing her photographer Paul Conroy – Dornan seems to be an able actor, but one who’s been most visible (in the cinema, at least) doing projects which are perhaps more lucrative than credible. He is also very good here, as is Hollander, even though the latter is saddled with some fairly ripe and portentous dialogue (he is basically given the job of putting across the film’s message concerning how important reporters like Colvin are). Probably also worth a mention is Raad Rawi, who has the ticklish job of portraying Colonel Gaddafi in a couple of scenes – he manages to deliver a convincing performance while still suggesting someone just a bit unhinged.

That said, despite all the fine acting, the film occasionally feels trite and excessively portentous, threatening to drown the audience in horror – laying it on a bit thick, in other words. The significance of the title is never completely made clear, either – what exactly was Marie Colvin’s private war? The woman’s life stands as a monument to dragging people by the collars and forcing them to confront the things they are complicit in: public, rather than private wars. Perhaps it is simply reflecting the fundamental struggle inside Colvin: genuine footage of the reporter appears, in which she speaks of the fear that accompanied her on all of her assignments (including the self-appointed ones), and yet there was also something in her compelling her to return again and again to places of tremendous danger and speak of what she saw there.

The film never really manages to get to the bottom of what it was that drove Marie Colvin to such lengths of extreme bravery, if bravery it indeed was. But it is very clear and persuasive in arguing that she and war correspondents like her serve a vital role in the modern world (something everyone is aware of – the film touches on this, both in terms of the US Army’s ’embedded reporters’ and insurgents deliberately targeting foreign journalists). The strength of the film’s message, the general quality of its storytelling, and Pike’s performance in particular combine to make this a fine film and one which it is well worth watching.

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One of the things you occasionally hear people suggesting, when it comes to films, is that some of the famous old stories that have generally proven to be bankers time and time again – you know the sort of thing: Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Tarzan, King Arthur – seem to have fallen out of favour, at least slightly. It’s not that they always flop, goes the theory, but they’re seldom world-conquering smash hits any more.

Nevertheless, people still keep making films based on these stories, even if it is the result of some sort of reflex action: we’ve had two big-budget Sherlock Holmes so far this century, with another on the way (even if it is a spoof); a rather poor Dracula a few years ago; and two King Arthur films since 2004 (the Clive Owen version, which suggested the famous king was a Romano-British soldier, and the Charlie Hunnam one, which presented him as a kung-fu fighting London gangster superhero). And now we are on our second Robin Hood film in not much than eight years (the last one being the Russell Crowe-Ridley Scott collaboration which seemed to get considerably less interesting between the time it was announced and its actual release).

The new film is (once again) Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst. Now, I am generally well-disposed to an adventure movie in the classic style, even if the story is somewhat well-worn. However, I suspect that even if I had managed to get to the screening of the new film without encountering the trailer or advertising, my expectations would have been flattened like a tax-collector hit with a quarterstaff by the opening dialogue alone. ‘I could tell you what year all this happened,’ says the blokey voice-over, ‘but I’ve forgotten. I could bore you with the history, but I won’t.’ Yes, God forbid you should credit the audience with any intelligence or attention span, writers of Robin Hood, just patronise away. It really does sound like the makers of the movie getting their excuses in first.

I can understand why, for what the film-makers manage to do is take possibly the most famous of English historical folk-legends and – well, I was about to say that they make a film totally devoid of historical content, but this would not be true. There is lots of history in Robin Hood. It is all just mind-bogglingly, preposterously inappropriate history.

Things get under way with them setting up the romance between good-hearted young nobleman Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton, who has turned into a serviceable enough leading man) and rebellious young working-class girl Marian (Eve Hewson, who is all heavy eyeshadow and embonpoint). However, their idyll is shattered when Robin receives his ‘Draft Notice’ in the post from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn), sending him off to fight in the Middle East. Here we have our first two bits of history – the ‘draft letter’ scene, which could quite easily come from midwestern America in the late 1960s, and the Sheriff’s full-length grey leather trench-coat, which rather leads one to assume he is serving in the Wehrmacht, circa 1940.

It gets better (by which I mean it gets worse). Robin is supposedly serving in the Third Crusade (1189-1192), but the conflict is deliberately presented in a manner designed to create associations with the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, rather more recently – it is the same vicious chaos of house-to-house fighting. Swap out the longbows for assault rifles and stone throwers for air support and the sequence would be utterly indistinguishable from something contemporary.

Anyway, Robin’s moral qualms at the execution of prisoners by his brutal unit commander results in him being sent home in disgrace, but also in his earning the respect of an enemy warrior who eventually decides to go by the name of John (Jamie Foxx). Our hero is actually quite pleased to get home and see his girl again, but gets a tremendous surprise when he discovers he has been declared dead, his lands seized, and Marian is now shacked up with a bloke named Will (Jamie ‘Sex Dungeon’ Dornan). (This, by the way, was nothing to the surprise I got when Robin’s ship sailed into ‘Nottingham Harbour’, as Nottingham is generally agreed to be some sixty miles from the coast.)

Robin soon learns that the Sheriff is manipulating the war in Arabia for his own ends (apparently Nottingham is ‘the beating heart of the Crusades’), soaking the poor and spreading dark, divisive tales of multitudes of freedom-hating killers intent on infiltrating western civilisation. He and John resolve to stop it, but this involves discovering what the Sheriff is really doing with the money he takes from his subjects as taxes. They adopt a two-pronged approach – by day, Robin will be a charming young nobleman who will slowly gain the Sheriff’s confidence. But by night he will be a bow-slinging robber known only as the Hood!

I don’t especially want to labour this point too much, because (as mentioned) the film-makers do make it absolutely clear from the get-go that they couldn’t give a stuff about historical accuracy, but, short of proceedings halting for a musical number where Jamie Foxx delivers a new version of his 2005 meteorological ick-fest Storm Forecast, it’s hard to see exactly how this film could become any more divorced from things that actually happened in English history. One of the plot drivers is the question of what the Sheriff is up to with the cash, and I honestly would not have been entirely surprised to learn he was secretly building tanks or robots, because it would have been much of a piece with the rest of the film.

Even so, you have to be somewhat staggered by something passing itself off as a Robin Hood film which features no sword-fighting, no band of Merry Men worthy of the title (there are various characters with similar names, but almost without exception they bear no resemblance to the ones from folklore), and in which you only hear the word ‘Sherwood’ and get a close-up look at a tree in the last five minutes before the credits roll. Prior to this the film is just a generic cod-historical action runaround, most obviously influenced by various computer games and superhero movies and TV shows.

I suppose the big question when one chooses to revisit a fable like this one, if one has any kind of artistic soul, is why you are doing so, given there have been so many previous versions. What is the Robin Hood legend actually about? Why has it endured, and why does it continue to resonate? For me, the legend in its purest form is about a number of things – the complex nature of English society, the relationship between the people and the land, and the national inclination towards independent thinking and natural justice.

If the new version of Robin Hood is about anything beyond special-effects set-pieces, Taron Egerton looking soulful, and Ben Mendelsohn yelling ‘I’ll boil you alive in your own piss!!!’, then it appears to be a sort of glib, one-size-fits-all anti-capitalist and anti-establishment propaganda. Parallels between the situation in the film and recent events are drawn in with broad, clumsy strokes – young people are sent off to die in a foreign war puppeteered by wealthy old men at home, the poor are screwed over by the economic system, and corrupt leaders cynically employ divisive and racist rhetoric to maintain control over the masses.

You could, I suppose, have introduced some of these themes into a Robin Hood movie, if they were handled with care and delicacy, and inserted as a subtext. But here, the whole film feels like a cack-handed attempt at allegory – not so much Robin Hood as Occupy Sherwood.

I will try to find something nice to say about this film, beyond simply that it is not quite as bad as Peter Rabbit (I still had my head in my hands at various points, though). Well – much of it is quite well-staged, and competently organised. I suppose the production values are quite good, although the costumes and sets bear no relation to any particular point in history. Ben Mendelsohn does his best as the Sheriff (too many of the supporting cast are simply wooden). The plot sort of hangs together, on its own terms. But that’s about it, really.

The Rabbit comparison is a pertinent one, actually: in both cases, a well-known tale (or body of tales) has been comprehensively gutted of anything resembling the traditional content, in favour of something which the makers presumably think is contemporary, ‘street’, and edgy, but all the charm and texture of the original has been lost in the process. This is, by any rational standard, an awful Robin Hood film. It will probably make a lot of money. But give me Michael Praed any day.

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Regular readers (heaven help you) will easily the imagine the wail of anguish that echoed round the garret when I discovered that I would have to see Fifty Shades Freed, latest (and hopefully final) instalment in the ghastly Fifty Shades multimedia colossus spawned by E.L. James, unaccompanied. It turned out that my usual associate Protective Camouflage, as a result of her having gotten hitched since the last film came out, no longer feels able to be seen with me at overlong inanely aspirational pornographic dribble. Or so I assume, anyway: what Mrs Camouflage actually said was that she had watched the trailer and thought it looked a bit rubbish, but, come on, what kind of reason is that for not going to watch a movie? If I didn’t bother with films just because their trailers weren’t that good, I’d end up only going to the cinema forty or fifty times a year.

Hey ho. You know me; I like to keep my finger on the knob of where it’s at, culturally, and the inescapable fact is that this series of films have earned over a billion dollars at the global box office. (Guys, are we sure the rapture didn’t happen a few years ago and nobody noticed?) So, having wrapped myself up to protect my identity from casual observers, off I went, sinews (and nothing else) appropriately stiffened.

It turns out that Mrs Camouflage is not the only one to have gotten herself spliced, as James Foley’s movie opens with the nuptuals of minimally-defined everygirl Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and her fiance, the inexplicably alluring handsome billionaire bondage-lover Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Soon they are off on their honeymoon tour of the great cities of Europe (it goes without saying that Mr Grey takes his new bride up the Arc de Triomphe while they are in Paris).

Soon there are signs of problems in their idyll, for despite having landed her fish, Anastasia finds herself still having to contend with his stern, possessive, control-freakish tendencies. Is she not even to be allowed to sunbathe topless around the fleshpots of the continent? They even have a big row about whether she is going to keep her maiden name around the office where she works.

Just at the point where I was about to scream ‘Hashtag first world problems!!!’ in the cinema, a subplot develops concerning Anastasia’s psycho ex-boss Hyde (Eric Johnson), who now turns out to have some kind of unspecified beef with the whole Grey clan, as coincidence and the requirements of a credulity-straining plot would have it. Not content with stalking the couple, Hyde even breaks into their apartment where he is swiftly subdued by their highly-trained bodyguards. ‘We need to restrain him!’ shouts Bodyguard One. ‘We don’t have any restraints!’ frets Bodyguard Two. ‘Ooh, I think we might have something,’ pipes up Anastasia, brightly: this is by far the most entertaining moment in the film and yet I’m by no means sure if it’s actually intentional or not.

On and on it goes: can Anastasia persuade Christian to let her keep her own identity now that they are married? Is he ever going to be in a position where he wants to have children? And surely they’re not going to let Hyde out on bail, what with him being a violent nutter? Oh… yes they are. Never mind.

Well, the one thing about Fifty Shades Freed‘s psycho stalker subplot is that it at least results in a sequence where there is some actual dramatic tension and chasing about. Suddenly the film achieves a sort of clarity and dramatic focus as a psychological thriller; only a sort of half-life, to be sure, but still much better than the rest of the film. The only other time I was particularly troubled by a strong feeling came very early on, during the Greys’ exchange of vows, which is so glutinously sentimental a moment I felt the profound urge to upchuck all over the premier seating area of the more downmarket of the two Oxford Odeons.

Those parts of the movie which are not attempting to be a thriller, resemble, like the previous episode, a very long and rather bland commercial, with anonymously attractive young people drifting around high-end apartments with wardrobes bigger than my entire garret, swathed in designer gear. The plotline is, as you may be able to tell, underwhelming, largely consisting of a new development in the lives of the Greys, which results in tension between them, which is resolved by a protracted sequence of make-up sex, often in Christian Grey’s sex dungeon, after which the whole cycle repeats itself.

It is a close-run thing whether the sequences of the Greys discussing their various emotional hang-ups are more or less boring than the trips to the sex dungeon – certainly while Johnson and Dornan are droning their dialogue at each other, I was hoping it would end as soon as possible, but then as soon as he started strapping her to the bedframe and getting out his metalworking kit – that’s what it looks like at one point, anyway – I found myself hoping for another outbreak of dialogue.

In the end this supposedly edgy and transgressive tale of forbidden desire resolves with a tableau of the most conventional domestic happiness you could possibly imagine. I’ve said it before and will repeat it again – the whole Fifty Shades saga is one of the most generic and undemanding romances you could possibly imagine, supposedly pepped up with all the kinky sex. Except it never feels that kinky, and carries no discernible erotic charge. It’s so utterly banal and mundane that it manages to make the visits to the sex dungeon seem boring.

Well, anyway, this seems almost certain to be the last one, and one thing in this film’s favour is that it’s mercifully briefer than the other two, by a good twenty minutes. People clearly go to these films, and I’m hardly in a position to mock them for doing so, but there’s no getting around the fact that they are simply turgid pap that have the opposite effect to the one they seem to be aiming for. After watching Fifty Shades Freed, celibacy has never seemed so attractive.

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Well, Valentine’s Day and the global corporate attempt to make people who are not single by choice feel worse about themselves than they already do are almost upon us as I write, and one could reasonably expect the onset of a spate of films all extolling the modern ideal of romance at its most epically glutinous. But wait, what’s this? A rather odd film about a slightly alarming dysfunctional relationship and someone with ball bearings up their wazoo?

Ah, it must be time for Fifty Shades Darker, directed by James Foley, the peculiar sequel to 2015’s peculiar Fifty Shades of Grey. Well, as before I felt it behoved me to check out such a significant piece of pop culture action, and thankfully my faithful companion when it comes to this sort of thing, Protective Camouflage, was also up for it. ‘Two tickets for Sex Dungeon 2, please,’ we proudly said, then (moving past a group of possibly underage cinema-goers arguing with the manager over whether they were allowed to watch the film) took our seats. With the first film, we practically had the place to ourselves (that’s what you get for watching soft-core porn at the art house, I guess), but this time around we found ourselves in the midst of a riotous, febrile atmosphere, with a brittle sense of people pretending not to take it all too seriously but secretly really, really excited about the prospect of seeing naked flesh and simulated whoa-ho-ho.


All very much at odds with the actual film, of course, which as before is primarily concerned with the doings of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who has just started a new job in publishing, her kinky entanglement with the inexplicably attractive young, handsome, ripped billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) definitely a thing of the past. For the first ten minutes anyway, for then Mr Grey reappears, declares he can’t live without her, and so on, and so on.

The plot beyond this point is a little difficult to describe… it’s not quite as if nothing actually happens, because obviously things do, and I don’t just mean visits to the sex dungeon. It turns out that Mr Grey, despite being more than a bit stalkerish and controlling himself, has got a couple of stalkers of his own, one of whom is played by none other than Kim Basinger. (This reminded me of Basinger’s role in the 1989 Batman movie, which also concerned a handsome, athletic young billionaire with an obsessive interest in punishment. But I digress.) Anastasia Steele attracts another weirdo (Eric Johnson), who is not a non-threatening billionaire and thus not dreamy boyfriend material. Mr Grey is in a helicopter crash with a female colleague, but this does not appear to bother him overmuch, no doubt because he has gone down with a lady many times in the past. Most excitingly, we finally get to meet Mr Grey’s housekeeper, who is presumably the one who keeps everything in the sex dungeon so well-oiled and shiny, but she is sadly only a very minor character.

But all of this feels very incidental to the main storyline (the helicopter crash bit in particular feels bizarrely throwaway), which concerns the, um, unexpectedly conventional relationship between Miss Steele and Mr Grey – she’s worried that he has something of a history with other ladies, struggles to get him to open up emotionally, and is bowled over when he asks her to move in. Radical stuff this really isn’t – this is a romance very much done by the numbers, as a quiet Everygirl discovers she has almost effortlessly won the heart of the handsome prince (it’s just that on this occasion the handsome prince has an extensive selection of recreational aids, even if he seems unsure of where to stick them). There’s something so blandly aspirational about the whole thing, with its tasteful interior decor, designer clothing, and endless product placement.

The advertising for this film is once again built around how blisteringly steamy and boldly transgressive it all is. Well, what floats your boat is a personal matter, I suppose, but even for an 18-rated film this is hardly very explicit (the only time Mr Grey gets his chopper out is when he’s preparing a salad) nor is it especially daring. Early on there’s a spanking sequence which is unintentionally funny rather than erotic (the fact the soundtrack at this point actually features the lyric ‘bum-diddy-bum-bum’ may be partly responsible, I suspect), and the whole ball-bearings-up-the-wazoo bit had Protective Camouflage and I sniggering up our sleeves. Your mileage may vary, naturally: we were practically the last people to leave the theatre, but as we did so there was one couple near the back apparently intent on sucking each others’ faces off, so it clearly did the trick for them.

Of course, this movie has already made an enormous pile of money, so (short of the total collapse of western civilisation, which admittedly feels like more of a genuine possibility than was the case a few months ago) I foresee little that can fend off the release of Sex Dungeon 3 next year, not least because it was filmed back to back with this one, by the same director. Not much chance of the last film redeeming the series, then, and every chance of more of the same.

Joking apart, this is simply quite a dull film, the characters are flat and not performed with any real energy, the plot is meandering and under-powered, and once again there’s a disconcerting lack of anything actually approaching an, um, climax – when it comes to the plot, anyway. It just resembles a very long advert for designer goods with some fairly tame soft-core sex scenes incongruously inserted. I expect that Protective Camouflage and I will check out number three as well, not least because we both enjoy a good laugh, but on the whole I would say that while the makers of Fifty Shades Darker have indeed come up with a film which will appeal to masochists, this is not quite in the way they probably intended.

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Okay, kids, strap in, it’s the one you’ve been waiting for. When I mentioned in passing on Facebook that I was dubious about the wisdom of seeing Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, I was quite surprised and touched by the collective wail of concern from people actually looking forward to reading my opinion. (Yes, it is possible for two people to wail collectively. Of course it is. And if you’re going to take that attitude, you can kindly sling your hook.)

I was a bit concerned about the visual of a spud-faced middle-aged man turning up unaccompanied to watch the great sado-masochistic sexcapade of our time, but as luck would have it a colleague was also keen to see it and more than willing to act as Protective Camouflage. (Although she did refer to it as Fifty Sheds, which made me a bit worried she misunderstood what was involved.) And so it was that we proudly made our way to the front of the queue of young families waiting to see Shaun the Sheep: the Movie.

‘Two for Sex Dungeon, please,’ I said proudly. (Well, we all have the occasional Freudian slip, don’t we.)

After a bit of a double-take from the woman on the till we got down to the normal rigmarole of choosing seats and so forth. Although, we were told, this wasn’t that big a deal as no-one else was actually going to be watching it with us. Something quite odd seems to be going on here: this was the most sparsely-attended weekend matinee I can remember going to (someone else turned up during the trailers, but it was just three of us in a big theatre), which I would usually take as a sign the film was spectacularly tanking, but apparently it has already recouped its relatively modest budget ten times over and a sequel is due out next year. Did it really do such good business on its opening weekend?


Hey ho. Fifty Shades of Grey is, of course, based on E.L. James’ astonishingly successful piece of retooled slash fanfic, which everyone was talking about a few years ago. (I worked with someone who was reading it and insisted on reading out choice selections at mealtimes, and to say that it was like listening to contract law is probably an insult to legal jargonese.) I note that James herself is producing this film and has actually joined the PGA, despite having no previous experience beyond British TV admin. (Maybe I’ll join the PGA too, it’ll look good on the blog.)

The film opens with a montage of clouds scudding across the sky, so that was a few shades of grey sorted out in the first few seconds. Before long it settles down to being the story of suave, enigmatic, 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and his relationship with mousy, nervous young student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), whom he meets when she interviews him for the college newspaper. Things go haltingly at first, for she is (wait for it) fifty grades of shy, and he seems to evade her questions, especially the one about his hobbies. ‘I enjoy a range of physical activities,’ he says. Hmm, what could he be on about?

Later on he turns up at the hardware store where she works, intent on buying a selection of rope, masking tape, and so forth. Cripes! They keep bumping into each other until Christian Grey makes his intentions properly known (once Anastasia has signed her non-disclosure agreement, that is).

It turns out that Christian Grey is… um, well, how can I put this? His tastes are sort of bracingly robust, if you know what I mean. He does indeed have his own sex dungeon in his luxury apartment, although it looks more like the interior of a gymkhana suppliers than anything too kinky, and he would quite like to put Anastasia in it and do all sorts of things to her.

She, unsurprisingly, has her doubts, but there is a long film to be filled and so it takes her a hell of a while to actually make her mind up about this. Also, Christian Grey seems to be just as big a fan of legal paperwork as he is of sado-masochism, because he has an extremely lengthy contract he wants her to review and sign before they properly get down to business. There is even a pre-business business meeting dedicated to this, which is quite possibly the weirdest context in which you will ever hear the words ‘vaginal fisting’. But I digress. Will Anastasia sign the contract and take up residence in the sex dungeon? Or will she manage to break through Grey’s reserve and engage him in something resembling a more conventional romantic relationship?

All right, so from a certain point of view this is one of the most extreme movies ever to get a mainstream release from a major studio, with all the marketing and attendant advertising designed to emphasise how throbbingly sexy it all is. (Some of the ads were for things I had to ask Protective Camouflage about, as I had no idea what they were.) Isn’t it all so shocking and transgressive, seems to be the unspoken subtext. Isn’t it all so overpoweringly erotic?

Um, well, no it isn’t, kids. The Emperor has no clothes on, not unlike Dakota Johnson for long sections of the film (as a result I now feel better acquainted with her nipples than those of any other person in history, including myself). It’s just not sexy: after a while your heart starts to sink every time they decamp to the sex dungeon for another distinctly unengaging romp. I found myself wondering just who kept the sex dungeon so spotlessly clean. Does Christian Grey get busy with the Mr Muscle and the Dyson every day after his latest playmate goes home? Has his cleaning lady also signed an NDA? That glossy flogging table must need a lot of polishing.

The main problem is that the films this most reminds me of are the Harry Potter adaptations and the Hunger Games movies, not because of the subject matter, but because it has been very carefully made not to spoil a potentially massive cash cow. This being a film aimed at a mainstream audience, there are limits to what it can show, and indeed in some ways it is notably less explicit than some other, less contentious films. Mr Grey keeps his trousers on most of the time, for instance.

Ironically, this isn’t as big a problem as it might sound, for in many ways Fifty Shades of Grey is crushingly conventional. If you extract all the stuff with the leather straps, the floggers, and the spanking, you’re just left with a rather gooey and familiar story about a shy young woman who captures the attention of a powerful, attractive man with commitment issues: It’s the stuff of countless blandly anonymous romances, wish-fulfilment for the (dare I say it) undemanding female reader. The bondage is just there to give the illusion of something spicy and a bit different. (Anastasia Steele’s attraction to Christian Grey has less to do with his ‘dangerous’ tendencies than the fact he’s an improbably handsome young billionaire. If the sado-masochist was a middle-aged ugly bloke in a council flat, this story wouldn’t work at all.)

Of course, this does lead to the biggest problem with the film, namely the ending (or absence of one). On paper it looks like a triumph for female self-empowerment, with Anastasia deciding the sex dungeon perhaps isn’t her cup of tea after all, and dumping Mr Grey. But while this makes a certain sort of sense, it’s playing against the whole thrust of the story, which feels like it should be the one where they break up, only for him to realise he really does love her after all and makes a big gesture to win her back, prior to the happy ever after. This film omits everything after the break up, or possibly defers it all to the sequel. The result is a conclusion which just feels annoyingly abrupt and unsatisfying.

The consensus on Fifty Shades of Grey is that ‘it’s better than the book, not that that’s saying much’. Not having read the book, I can’t comment, but the book would have to be pretty comprehensibly dreadful to be much worse than this. I have got more pleasurable erotic frissons out of watching Carry On films than I did from Fifty Shades of Grey: this film actually manages to make the conjugal act look unappealingly dull. I’m not sure if it’s a crime against cinema, but it’s certainly a crime against sex. Yuck.


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