Heavy Breathing at the Back

Sooner or later, you'll have to watch this movie. Make sure you have a glass of Chardonnay to hand. Or several…

This is a film to be savoured in the communal atmosphere of a darkened cinema. The solidarity of those eager, giggling bodies around you, some women dragging along sheepish male partners, most tripping in with a shoal of girlie mates, all bearing glasses or even bottles of wine and/or champagne, made the experience enjoyable from the off.

As I waited for my three girlfriends to escort me inside, two others emerged po-faced from the earlier showing. I stopped them for a quick vox-pop. In unison they muttered, tipping away their bottles of warm wine disguised as mineral water: ‘Disappointing.’

As the lights went down, two nattily dressed Chinese boys rushed to the front, which made us wonder if a) this trilogy has already become a gay destination event along the lines of those sing along SoundaMusic or Mamma Mia viewings (everyone whispering huskily iconic lines such as ‘Enlighten me!’ or ‘Fuck the contract’ or b) they thought they were seeing a film about interior decorating.

Disappointing it may have been to some, but the auditorium was already hot and steamy by the time we took our seats. One of my friends hadn’t read the book, so was coming to this box-fresh, but you’d have to be living in Outer Mongolia not to know something about this film. Even so,  as my sister pointed out on hearing I was going to see it, there’s bound to be at least one fan even in Outer Mongolia.

In other words it would be impossible to have absolutely no preconceptions. But I do wish I hadn’t watched the Lego spoof trailer beforehand. I don’t mean that a clutch of plastic figures with no joints and only one expression had more animation than the actors in this film. But it did make me splutter on my smuggled chardonnay when Ana first arrived to interview Christian. Watch it. You’ll see what I mean.

Also, it doesn’t help that my real name is Anastasia (and Ana for short) so that every time Christian uttered it in that soft, hectoring accent I felt my subjective faculties evaporating.

Ah, Christian. I was relieved that Jamie Dornan’s previous, mesmerising incarnation as Paul Spector in The Fall was soon dissipated, because once I’d accepted the lack of beard, and that this role was not a natural fit for him, I was able fully to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the movie, some of which were unexpected.

As an erotic author, my critical antennae were exercised by the uneven pacing of the action and scenes and the introduction then abandoning of secondary characters such as the flatmate and the families – although, and maybe it’s my age, I found myself identifying more with the naughty, feisty moms than with Ana, and wanting to see more of them. And what was the point of Rita Ora/Mia in that hideous syrup? The one line she spoke was, I think, supposed to be in French, but I certainly couldn’t understand it.

The dialogue, impeccably faithful to the original text, was sometimes clumsy (‘What am I doing here, Christian?’ Answer from the back row of the audience: ‘Duh!’). Such distractions drained the central relationship of its essential intensity, and more fatally highlighted the inconsistency in the relationship between the ill-matched lovers.

I’m all for a coup de foudre, but I also like a little foreplay before getting down and dirty. Any film needs dramatic tension and an erotic film needs sexual tension. We had two hours.  What was the rush? But we moved too quickly from one stage of their ‘relationship’ to the next. Within days of their first meeting, Christian had bought some equipment from a hardware store, cut short a meaningless cup of coffee, and was then storming into a night club to shove Ana’s poor male friend aside for trying to kiss her.  Meanwhile Ana was already teasing him for playing push-me, pull-you (and inadvertently summing up a central flaw in her own story) as if they’d known each other for weeks.

I can buy the idea of a troubled, solitary man blowing hot and cold with an enthusiastic, wholesome virgin, but this is a successful billionaire who doesn’t seem wholeheartedly to believe in or enjoy his actual work. And who has an appalling taste in casual wear. Nor can he converse naturally or easily in his home life. His default tone is conversely both to lecture and conceal.

In the fantasy world of fiction we expect to travel with our characters in order to care about them, to see them evolve, witness a flowering and development of their dynamic even if conflict arises and they argue or separate along the way. But Christian loses our belief in him when in one breath he’s telling Ana he doesn’t do romance, or sleeping together, or even making love, tells her he won’t touch her without her written consent (which raised another laugh from the audience), yet does all the above within their first night together.

Similarly Ana, who also has an unnervingly childish dress sense, dilly-dallies over signing the contract in order to get to know and test him– some of the best and unexpectedly comic scenes in the film – agrees to some of the punishments, admits she is falling for him, then after allowing him, indeed asking him to show her his worst, throws a massive strop when he makes free with the riding crop and stamps back into that goddamn lift. Not that I blame her. The initial slapping on the rump moments are unintentionally comical, and there seems little relevance or eroticism in that Red Room of Pain. Christian appears agonised as he practises his reef knots and brandishes the cat o-nine tails. Even then Ana is way ahead of him, sighing and gasping before he’s even touched her.

Nevertheless Dakota Johnson was a revelation and it was a bonus that she was relatively unknown. First off, am I the only person who thinks she looks like a younger version of the writer E L James? Secondly, by pure chance I’d seen her in The Social Network  climbing out of Justin Timberlake’s bed just a day or so earlier, and thought her cute in those few screen moments, but she truly owns this film. She’s not quite sexy or alluring enough for an erotic heroine, but she’s charming, has an infectious giggle, and is believable to look and listen to, knocking spots off her co-star.

9 and a half weeks this wasn’t. Or at least, parts of it were. Parts of it were also  pure Pretty Woman. The sex was graphic, as you’d expect, and beautifully and daringly choreographed, but oddly untitillating. After a while I found myself wishing it would end so we could hear what Ana had to say next. Which, as I say, reveals both a terrible weakness and an unexpected, delightful strength.

I’ll leave the last word to the audience. About halfway through we were disturbed by some heavy breathing from the row behind us. Had Sam Taylor-Joynson, Dornan et al succeeded in ‘moistening us’ as one reviewer promised?

No. It was one of the champagne wielding ladies. Fast asleep.

Primula Bond is the author of the Unbreakable trilogy: The Silver ChainThe Golden Locket and  The Diamond Ring; you can follow her on Twitter here:  @primulabond

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