“Think of it as delayed gratification,” Dakota Johnson purrs at Jamie Dornan at one point in the sequel to the film adaptation of the much-ballyhooed erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. In resisting immediate gratification, it may result in a tantalizing build-up that promises to end in a satisfying pay-off. However, James Foley’s Fifty Shades Darker delays gratification to the point where it never comes. Instead we get two hours of half-hearted foreplay that is as effective an aphrodisiac as taking a Valium.
The film picks shortly where the last film left off, with Johnson’s Anastasia Steele having given her paramour Christian Grey (Dornan) the old heave-ho after his dark desires got a little too intense for her liking. Ana is fresh out of college and settling into her new job as an assistant at a publishing house, but she can’t quite shake the memory of her time with Christian… likely because he’s been low-key stalking her since their split. Five minutes into the film, the couple is back together, with Christian promising to dial down his domineering nature in favour of a “vanilla relationship” (their words). The rest of the movie is a series of contrivances that improbably downplay Christian’s worst qualities—he’s still unforgivably controlling, but in comparison to a literal attempted rapist (seriously), he’s a knight with shining Ben Wa balls. Character motivations and decisions are steamrolled in order to get the plot to the place it needs to go. Christian and Ana end the movie engaged, with a post-credits stinger teasing the eventual third instalment of the trilogy promising to show us their bland yet extravagant wedding and boring marriage.
Oh, and sometimes they fuck. Occasionally with restraints to spice things up, but the simulated sex choreography stays mostly missionary. Fantasy can often be problematic by nature, which is perfectly fine, but the Fifty Shades series constant misapplication of BDSM-lite as a symptom of childhood abuse is at best wilfully ignorant and at worst actively harmful. In fact, the only really satisfying wish-fulfillment fantasy of Fifty Shades Darker come when the twenty-something Ana is both promoted from her entry-level position to replace her boss, and has her savvy opinions praised by two older men in a staff meeting. Mmm, yeah baby, gimme more of that egalitarian merit-based workplace.
And Anastasia, girl, let’s have a word, woman-to-woman: I get it. Sometimes the endorphins rush a little too hard and you trick yourself into thinking a dick can reach all the way in to touch your heart. You’re a product of a popular culture that has always been uniquely bad about conflating good sex with love. It’s taught generations of women to write off possessive and borderline-abusive behaviour as romantic grand gestures. That money equals security and security equals happily ever after. And as much as you’re depicted trying your damnedest to push back against your lover’s power plays, you ultimately become part of the machine that peddles the same damaging bullshit.