This is a chaste age at the cinema. La La Land may be sold on its leads’ sizzling chemistry, but Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone remain strictly zipped throughout. Film fans in search of titillation are unlikely to be sated by Loving’s snuggles or Moonlight’s angsty, unseen intimacy. In tilting for Oscars, contenders are emulating the statuettes’ anatomy.
Enter Fifty Shades Darker, the second instalment of EL James’s shamelessly mainstream sadomasochist romance. Finally, a funnel for all that lust.
But the only thing aroused by this headache of a movie is a desire to see Sam Taylor-Johnson back at the reins. Somehow, in 2015, she transformed James’s appalling porn into a something watchable. She coached charming performances from Dakota Johnson as bookish graduate Anastasia Steele and Jamie Dornan as deranged but dishy billionaire Christian Grey. She then departed the franchise, apparently in reaction to the author’s whip-cracking. In her place: the slavish duo of James (House of Cards) Foley as director and Niall Leonard (Mr EL James, coincidentally) in charge of the script.
Submission might turn on our hero – and, perhaps, his creator – but it does not make for a gripping film. The plotless pant of the novel is faithfully recreated, as Christian wins Anastasia back by renouncing bondage unless she’s really, really up for it, then various peripheral figures – a former submissive, old flame Kim Basinger, Anastasia’s hot rotter of a boss – try to force them apart.
Spliced between such drama come the sex scenes, steamy as a greasy spoon and almost as erotic. Fifty Shades’s chief way of proving how dirty it is seems to be making its stars take endless showers – which inevitably leads to more sex, and so a terrible cycle of shagging and washing.
A few leather cuffs do pop up, but they’re unbuckled fast so the missionary position can be better adopted. Nipple clamps put in an appearance, but only on fingers. The most outré it gets is our heroine going to a party wearing a couple of silver balls in a place that doesn’t really show them off (Anastasia: “You’re not putting those in my butt.” Christian: “They’re not for your butt”). Yet even these are just a warm-up act for some standard-issue humping, beneath, of all things, a poster for The Chronicles of Riddick.
Taylor-Johnson’s genius was to handle such batty trash with pace and class. This time round, there’s neither. The sex comes suddenly, like someone else’s drinks – all blow-out, no build-up. Christian is so accomplished he can bring Anastasia to the brink of orgasm fully clad in a crowded lift which isn’t going far and whose muzak is Van Morrison. “Deep down inside me,” explains Anastasia in the book after this sort of thing, “sweet joy unfurls like a morning glory in the early dawn.” On film, we just get a grin and a gasp.
Other events are similarly quick; Fifty Shades Darker features the most abrupt helicopter crash of all time. As the movie progresses, so cohesion further loosens and we descend into soap. One woman gets not only a martini in the face but also a slap chaser.
This incompetence is entertaining until you consider the psychology. Anastasia seems almost as unhinged as her boyfriend, forever chopping and changing between being captivated by his behaviour and clocking he’s a psychopath. Her rationale for sticking with him is also worrisome: his main rival turns out to be, deep down, just as disturbed. If all men are sadists, you might as well go for one with money.
A final word for a late scene featuring acrobatic shots of Christian in his penthouse gym, atop a pommel horse. It was this, rather than any of what our heroine calls “kinky-fuckery”, which got the premiere audience applauding. If James wants the horse she’s flogging to show signs of life, the best way forward may be a stab at chastity.
• Fifty Shades Darker is on release
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