A boy cowers under the table on a rainy night. Sounds of domestic violence emerge from the next room. Suddenly, an unkempt man clenching a cigarette seizes him. Then the movie abruptly remembers that this is supposed to be a romance, and the title card jarringly shifts to the gossamer petals of a white rose, slapping the audience with a heaping helping of Georgia O’Keefe symbolism. So begins 50 Shades Darker, the sequel to the erotica “thriller” 50 Shades of Grey that completely underwhelmed audiences in 2015, when director Sam Taylor-Johnson got his hands on the screenplay of a popular dirty novel and decided what sexually repressed readers really wanted was a romance.
Originally, I was not even going to bother describing the “plot” of this movie - quotation marks intended. For those of you unacquainted with the series so far, it details the struggle of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a single woman in Seattle struggling with a nerdy haircut and a laughable fanfiction-y name, who gets tapped to be the next concubine of millionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). When we last saw them, Anastasia learned that Chris, in addition to behaving like a complete narcissistic control freak for the entire movie, was into some kinky stuff in the bedroom, prompting her to leave him.
After a brief stalking in the opening of the movie, Anastasia, who seems to attract sociopaths the way La La Land attracts Oscar nominations, is approached by Chris once again. He claims to have changed and wants to be with her again. If this were a sensible Halle Berry movie, alarm bells would already be ringing. Instead, Anastasia caves instantly, on the condition that he respects her boundaries, a rule he does not even wait until the next scene to violate. She also makes him promise to swear off the kinky stuff, for a whole twenty minutes, at which point they are once again merrily off to the dungeon. If this movie were re-edited, it could make an excellent drama about the tendency of mistreated people fall back into abusive relationships.
The movie lacks a plot, beyond Christian acting like a sexual predator. He follows Anastasia, makes decisions for her, and refuses to hear the word “no.” On the rare occasions that Anastasia grows a spine and confronts him about his inappropriate behavior, he fakes some emotional vulnerability, they have sex, and she forgets all about it. A good working title for this movie might well have been 50 Shades of Red Flags. Darker furthermore dispenses with the kinky pretext; it is blatantly spelled out for the audience that Chris lacks a fetish so much as a psychological complex rooted in deep-seated mommy issues that revolves around degrading women. It takes the movie’s villain, of all people, to tell Anastasia that he can’t change his abusive tendencies and that she would be better off without him.
The most obvious complaint about this movie is the truly awful acting. I cannot decide whether to blame the writers or the actors for dialogue that sounds like it came from The Room, but none of these people can emote or even feign attraction. Each line reading is so limp that another good title for Darker might be It’s Not Delivery, It’s a Porno. The lead actors share no chemistry whatsoever; Anastasia could probably fail a Turing test, and the emotionless Christian only comes across as believable because he already acts like a complete sociopath in every other regard. I refuse to even use the words “stiff” and “wooden” to describe the acting; this movie does not deserve them.
But if there is one glaring flaw, it is that nothing about this movie is remotely sexy. Not surprising, seeing as France deemed the first movie too boring to censor as pornography. Should you plan on sitting through Jamie Dornan’s flaccid performance in the hopes of some nudity, then I hope you like abs and delts; the camera has no problem giving Dakota Johnson the full HBO treatment, but for some reason likes to stop just below Dornan’s navel. He also has a bizarre tendency to have sex with his pants on, only discarding them afterward.
Whatever the makers of 50 Shades Darker were aiming for, they missed. The couple is incompatible, the romance manipulative and abusive, and the sex may actually leave you less aroused than you were before the film started. Viewers are advised to save themselves ten bucks and find something better online.