At the conclusion of Fifty Shades of Grey, innocent protagonist Anastasia leaves Christian as he begs her not to. She just isn’t getting any satisfaction from their relationship – not only is Christian refusing to be emotionally intimate with her, but to prove a point he spanks her so hard that she cries. The ending of the first film in the 50 Shades franchise is the redeeming feature in a film that propagates questionable views on stalking, consent and abuse. When Ana takes control, using her own agency to storm out of Christian’s penthouse and leave behind all the luxuries of semi-dating a billionaire madman, it’s enough to make you feel good.
In Fifty Shades Darker, it takes approximately ten minutes for Ana and Christian to reconcile and yes, that’s why people want to see it, but Ana’s final act from the first film is all but forgotten when Christian starts spouting lines like, “I don’t like people gawking at you”, “you are mine”, and “he wants what’s mine.” One of Ana’s struggles throughout is coming to terms with how she will never be as truly submissive as what Christian needs in a partner, however there is a dissonance between this idea and how the action plays out on screen. Ana believes herself to be independent, but does not protest when Christian swoops into after-work drinks, snaps at her boss and then insists that they leave immediately. Nor does she put up much of a fight when Christian flat-out tells her that she cannot go to New York for the weekend. There is merely a half-hearted conversation about it, which ends in Ana folding and agreeing not to go. It is difficult to be told one thing – that Ana is just so independent – and be shown another – that she is, in fact, totally cool with being treated however Christian feels like treating her. Unfortunately it is clear that this is a technical issue within the Fifity Shades universe, and one that will always be inherent to the books and the films. Fans of the books want to go and see Christian be bossy and Ana be blushing, and it’s not up to James Foley (director) or Niall Leonard (script) to challenge it.
Plot wise, Fifty Shades Darker is overwhelmingly boring. Once the lovers are reunited, they commence a relationship that is more classically romantic than that of the first film. Something has changed in Christian while separated from Ana, and he is seemingly ready to do anything to get her back – sleep in the same bed, stay the night and not bring any overwhelming “kinky fuckery” into their sex life. The majority of the story is simply about Ana and Christian figuring out how to be together. They attend parties in fancy clothes, go to dinner and then swiftly move in together and get engaged. Peppered throughout are some strange action moments – the couple sailing on a yacht together, Christian crashing his helicopter – but these certainly can be removed in order to streamline the plot. They are included as moments of fan service rather than integral beats within the narrative, as made clear when Christian crashes his helicopter, goes missing, comes home with barely a scratch on him and then the romance plot is resumed as if none of it ever happened.
The most important subplot to the romance is Ana’s job at Seattle Independent Publishing, which gets tied up with Christian anyway as he insists on buying the company that Ana works for (he can afford it, he makes $24, 000 every fifteen minutes despite the fact that we barely ever see him at work). Initially her boss Jack is everything any of us would ask for: caring as he brings her tea, interested in her opinion as he reads the manuscript she offers and inclusive as he invites her to the after-work drinks on a Friday. However, once Jack knows that Christian is Ana’s boyfriend he reveals himself to be lecherous. He traps Ana in the office late on night while they are alone and tries to sexually assault her. Here is the one moment of directorial success in the film that sticks out for me – Jack goes to the door and from his POV we see a deserted, musky office on which we linger for an uncomfortably long moment. We switch back to a wide shot as Jack closes the door, and we all know what he is going to try to do. It is a tense moment in the film; I will admit that it actually put me on edge. However a skeptical viewer can’t help but think Jack’s character is included as a yardstick for Christian. Because of Jack, we can sit in the cinema and think “oh well, at least Christian never outright forced himself on Ana like that guy!”
While Christian is not in the habit of forcing himself on Ana, his character still behaves sexually in a way that, perhaps, should not be romanticized and mass distributed on film. Portrayed as being sexy, Christian presents Ana with some small silver balls. “What are they?” she asks, and he doesn’t answer. Just tells her to bend over. “You’re not putting those in my butt,” she tells him. Christian agrees, but doesn’t tell her where he is going to put them. Ana is clearly confused, questioning and a little bit distressed, but Christian inserts the balls into his girlfriend anyway.
The film ends with a cliffhanger and a post credits scene to prepare us for Fifty Shades part three, where I’m sure we will find yet another problematic portrayal of this relationship. I might even be able to deal with it by then if there’s enough of a plot to hold it up.