By HEATHER TURK
Front Row Features Film Critic
Two years after “Fifty Shades of Grey” steamed up multiplexes everywhere, its long-awaited sequel, “Fifty Shades Darker,” hits theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Based on the second novel in E.L. James’ best-selling “Fifty Shades” erotica trilogy, which chronicles the budding romantic relationship between virginal Anastasia Steele and billionaire sadist Christian Grey, “Fifty Shades Darker” picks up shortly after where “Fifty Shades of Grey” left off, with Ana (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan) separated after Ana experiences just how intense Christian wants their S&M relationship to be and walks out on him. Their break up doesn’t last for long, however, and a bouquet of flowers and one quinoa salad later, Ana and Christian are renegotiating their relationship terms as Christian tries to have a more “vanilla” courtship in order to keep Ana in his life.
As Ana and Christian grow closer, their relationship continues to be tested—but this time, by things outside of Christian’s infamous Red Room of Pain. There’s a former submissive (Bella Heathcote, “The Neon Demon”) who is stalking Ana trying to figure out what she has that makes Christian want to spend his life with her; Ana’s creepy new boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson, “Rookie Blue”), who becomes obsessed with Ana and Christian’s relationship; and finally the heavily anticipated on-screen debut of Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger)—a.k.a. “Mrs. Robinson”—the older woman who introduced Christian to the S&M lifestyle when he was just 15 years old. While these may be the “Darker” elements referenced in the film’s title—as well as Ana becoming increasingly more comfortable with the occasional “kinky f#@$ery,” as she puts it—choppy editing, poor writing and an overinflated storyline keep “Fifty Shades Darker” from being quite as nail-biting, intense and steamy as it is in book form.
Not that James’ novel is the best written book to begin with, but the big-screen adaptation of “Fifty Shades Darker” plays more like a cheesy Lifetime movie than a theatrical blockbuster, making its 2015 predecessor seem practically Oscar worthy. Conflicts are resolved almost instantly, so there’s no real suspense, and the quick edits and underdeveloped subplots keep audiences from ever truly becoming emotionally involved with the story.
Johnson and Dornan do the best they can with the material at hand, but the script by James’ husband, Niall Leonard (taking over screenwriting duties from Kelly Marcel, who penned the “Fifty Shades of Grey” screenplay), doesn’t really give the duo that much to work with. Even their sex scenes seem tame and void of any of the passion captured on film for the first movie. Basinger, meanwhile, is criminally underused as Elena, and—like several characters in the film—seems just thrown in the movie to appease fans of the book series rather than giving her character any real reason to be there. The explosive confrontation between her and Marcia Gay Harden (who plays Christian’s adoptive mother, Grace) at the end of the film isn’t nearly as exciting as it could have been seeing as how it comes out of nowhere and the characters’ friendship hasn’t really been talked about all that much on-screen other than Grace briefly introducing Elena to Ana at Christian’s birthday party as her dear old friend.
The poorly written script and hasty editing also prevent anyone who hasn’t read the books or at least seen the first movie from really knowing what’s going on. Unlike some sequels where viewers can jump in and catch up, the first 30 minutes or so of “Fifty Shades Darker” is so thrown together, audiences really need the books or the first film as a reference to know what is happening and who is who. Granted most people watching the film will have already read the books or seen “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but for the few non-fans dragged along by their girlfriend (or boyfriend), they’re likely going to be very confused and frustrated.
While “Fifty Shades Darker” definitely has a TV movie of the week vibe to it, fans already invested in Ana and Christian’s relationship probably won’t care too much and will still be entertained watching their unconventional romance continue to unfold on the big screen. Everyone else, however, is advised to avoid the flick, as only die-hard “Fifty Shades” fans are likely to find any redeeming qualities in the movie. It may not be the worst thing to ever hit the big screen (that honor is still reserved for “Magic Mike”), but even fans of the book series have to admit that Christian should give the filmmakers a good spanking for thinking that this was a well-made adaptation.
Grade: B- for “Fifty Shades” fans, C- for everyone else