Fifty Shades Darker (2017)      ☆

I’ve never read the E. L. James books these films are adapted from, as the critical lashings they’ve received were sufficient enough to scare me away. For such polarizing works, that expose an enormous rift between industry and public reception, it can be difficult to find an objective voice when it comes to the film adaptations. There is a certain built-in audience hoping and expecting them to fail, easily carrying over the novels’ reputation for kinky, ham-fisted, softcore prose into the moving images where such things are made concrete. Despite its box office success, 2014’s Fifty Shades Of Grey received its fair share of snickers and dissenters, most of which can be dismissed as biased against the material, and naturally this year’s sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, will be equally vilified by those same undiscerning individuals, who are unable or unwilling to acknowledge what are in many cases glaring differences that make it hard to believe both films are adapted from the same series. And while those voices may be spot on when it comes to this film, without a doubt one of the worst ever made, Fifty Shades Darker‘s singular success lies in how it reinforces the strengths of the original by comparison.

The first, and perhaps biggest difference between the two films, is that Grey was directed by a woman, Sam Taylor-Johnson, and written by a woman, Kelly Marcel, and Darker by two men, James Foley and Niall Leonard, respectively. While there are a vast number of cooks in the kitchen when it comes to motion pictures, there is a marked difference between the treatment of the character of Anastasia Steele in each film, to the extent that it is hard to believe that these two films came from the same author, let alone the same series. Perhaps Taylor-Johnson’s influence was merely observing this difference and passing on the sequel because of it. Who can know for sure? But what is crystal clear is that in her film Anastasia Steele is front and center, and her journey of self-discovery is the central thrust of the film upon which everything else revolves. Exquisitely shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, there are appropriately beautiful sequences that serve to get into Steele’s headspace, seduced by a strange world both physical and psychological, of which she ultimately stays in control, even while it seems like it’s slipping away. The sex scenes have a narrative purpose as well as a character purpose; they are not gratuitous in the least, and I would argue against those who condemn the film for its depiction of bondage as lurid and the mark of a unbalanced person, as Taylor-Johnson does her very best at upholding the perspective through Anastasia’s eyes.

Fast forward two years and all of that is gone. Fifty Shades Darker completely abandons Anastasia’s character and lacks any sense of purpose or forward momentum. At no time in this film is there any indication of where it is going or what the point is in getting there. It is pure plot, nonsensical and arbitrary, and treats Anastasia like a pinball trapped in some horrific game where she’s required to fawn all over Christian Grey, and stand by him like a devoted puppy while he unpacks his legion of baggage right in front of her. In fact it is so locked into its endless emotional loop of love-doubt-sadness-sex-love that the film’s scenes could be completely reordered and it wouldn’t change a thing, or become any more confusing, and that is one of the worst qualities for a film to have. And unlike the first film the sex scenes here are supremely gratuitous, almost uncomfortable to watch with their obvious contradiction between explicit content and very careful blocking, and the fact that they serve zero purpose to the story, existing only for shock value, the perpetuation of an infantile notion that is unwarranted here, where sequels have to be BIGGER and BETTER than originals.

Fifty Shades Darker is an ugly, offensive film that would be laughable had the original not been so focused and clearly defined. There is no reason for this film to exist, outside of a a puerile need to titillate audiences. Nothing happens, and what does happen is very poorly plotted, manufacturing conflict out of thin air at every turn, a tedious, limp execution of the psychosexual thriller its trailer seemed to promise. Fifty Shades Of Grey did a remarkable job disguising the extremely rough edges of the source material, while Fifty Shades Darker wallows in it. No doubt due to the fact that the writer, Niall Leonard, is E. L. James’ husband, a ludicrous stroke that impugns any sense of objectivity in the adaptation. The makers of the first film were clearly trying to create something out of nothing, while the makers of the second film were only interested in putting the purple prose up on the big screen. There is not a single redeeming quality in this film, and I sincerely hope that it doesn’t mar the reputation of the first. Among a certain population there will be no convincing, but my hope at least is that some audiences will recognize a difference and think about the many reasons this film didn’t work at all, when the original worked so well.

The Verdict: Pan