Movie News & Reviews

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’: What you need to know before you watch

Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Born online, spread through whispered word-of-mouth and now a major motion picture opening today, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a phenomenon that refuses to stop.

It will let you blindfold it, sure. And tie up its hands. But it won’t stop.

The erotic tale of an emotionally distant billionaire (Jamie Dornan in the movie) who awakens the sexuality of a recent college graduate (Dakota Johnson) as she thaws his cold heart, “Fifty” began as “Twilight”-inspired fan fiction. It developed into a book trilogy (the second and third are “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed”) that has sold 100 million copies worldwide, according to publisher Vintage Books.

With her first book, British writer E.L. James threw “Twilight’s” abstinence-before-marriage message under the bus. She re-imagined Edward as Christian Grey, a chiseled businessman who is just as ardent in his pursuit of the heroine as vampire Edward was in “Twilight,” but whose M.O. is DS (dominance and submission). Christian has “very singular” tastes, as Dornan says in the trailer. (Though this line evokes Liam Neeson’s “particular set of skills” from the “Taken” movies, “Fifty” involves fewer bullets and more tiny riding crops).

In crafting her female lead character, James took the awkward “how can this God of a man possibly be interested in lil ol’ inconsequential me?” Bella Swan of “Twilight,” slapped the “Dynasty” name Anastasia Steele on her, and called it a day.

The writing is sub-“Twilight.” Christian Grey’s ties and eyes are gray, and Ana refers to her “inner goddess” as if she were a Sedona retiree. However, readers, a reported 80 percent of them women, ignored the writing quality in favor of plentiful sex scenes, and Christian’s clear feelings for Ana, despite his talk of a sex-only relationship.

But sex scenes that were NC-17 in the book will be R-rated in the film. And there’s no fast-forwarding at the theater. So it will be interesting to see how the book’s fans, with fewer distractions and robbed of a chance to skim, will react to some of the book’s cheesier aspects, writ large on screen.

In honor of this highly unusual Valentine’s Day film-going weekend, we offer a breakdown of the novel/film characters and of author James and the film’s little-known lead actors.

THE CHARACTERS:

Anastasia Steele: A lit major on the eve of graduation at the first book’s start, Ana meets Christian Grey when she interviews him for the college newspaper. The interview is a favor for her sick roommate, Kate, the newspaper’s editor. When Christian pursues Ana, she is flummoxed, because she does not think she is suitably attractive for the sophisticated billionaire. When Christian traces her cellphone to find her at a bar, Ana worries he is a stalker. When he tells her he is not available emotionally, she falls for him, anyway. Because red flags lose their power in the face of extreme handsomeness.

Christian Grey: A self-made mogul, Grey’s business interests are vague and his preference for kink over “vanilla” in the bedroom pronounced. Now a dominant, he started as a submissive, at 15, with his mother’s friend. Unsurprisingly warped by this experience, he now seeks “control in all things.” But he loses control every time the nervous Ana bites her lip.

Kate Kavanagh: Ana’s roommate (played by Eloise Mumford in the film) is rich and gorgeous but down to earth. Editor of the school newspaper, Kate is street smart and owns her sexuality. For fans of empowered females, she’s more interesting than Ana.

José Rodriguez: A school friend and talented photographer who harbors a big crush on Ana, he is, in “Twilight” terms, the Jacob to Christian’s Edward. He also says “dios mio!” and comes on too strong with Ana one drunken evening. Regardless of how José is portrayed in the film, actor Victor Rasuk, who starred in the wonderful 2002 coming-of-age film “Raising Victor Vargas,” just might be too good for this material.

THE ACTORS:

Dakota Johnson: She is the 25-year-old daughter of Don Johnson and ex-wife Melanie Griffith. A one-time model, Dakota Johnson had a memorable scene in “The Social Network” as a Stanford student who wakes up in bed with Napster’s Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) and inadvertently introduces the tech inventor to an early version of Facebook.

Jamie Dornan: The Northern Irish actor, 32, is skin-crawlingly sociopathic in his role as a family man and serial killer on the British series “The Fall,” the second season of which now is out on Netflix. He also was convincing as the kind sheriff, Graham, on the first season of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.”

E.L. James: Former television executive Erika Leonard, a long-married 51-year-old British woman with two children, adopted this pen name for her “Fifty Shades” trilogy. According to an article on the making of the movie in this month’s Vanity Fair, James has earned $100 million from the books and related “Fifty” merchandise. She also retained an unusual amount of control over the film, weighing in on details down to characters’ clothes. She comes off in the VF article as devoted to the “Fifty” fandom and keen to serve its interests.

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