I don’t like Fifty Shades Freed, let’s get that out the way now. It’s as exciting as a car ride with your brake-for-every-speed-bump grandmother, and about as spicy as milk. It is a constant surprise that franchises grossing billions of dollars (*cough* Transformers *cough*) can have absolutely no impact on me across their two to three-hour stints of loosely connected scenes. I’m stunned by how many people will pay for what is the film equivalent of a glass of room-temperature tap water.
But here’s the thing: I liked it way more than I expected.
Going into this film I was loaded with expectations. I’d not seen previous installations and had only heard that it was thinly-veiled pornography with very little substance. There was a sense of a sordid atmosphere, and a genuine feeling of embarrassment as me and my companion walked into the theatre. Nervous laughter masked our fear of judgement while open declarations of the absurdity of this situation were proffered to appease the assumed “Are they going to get off at the back of the cinema?” conspirators.
So imagine my surprise when, far from getting off with the nearest person, I’d barely registered any emotion in any direction. “Where was the scandal?” the first question I had, then: “Why are people so angry about this film?” The answer came immediately when the lights went up: the audience was (apart from the occasional exception) entirely female.
The history of literature geared towards a feminine audience being poo-pooed and dismissed is evident. Consider the furore against Twilight (of which the Fifty Shades franchise is an unashamed fanfiction-come-ripoff) as a perfect example of this attitude in effect. The vitriol, judgement, and hatred levelled at Meyer herself for her largely unremarkable series is perfectly explained and contextualised by Lindsay Ellis in her video essay Dear Stephenie Meyer. But the long and short of it is: we don’t want women to have fun. The Fifty Shades films receive a similar criticism which is, despite often justified, disproportionate to their crimes. There’s plenty of equally under-thought material in male-led franchises that receives considerably less backlash.
On the technical side, there is very little to say about this film. The acting is decidedly okay, with unimaginative cinematography doing very little to mask the lack of chemistry between the two leads. This is not so much down to bad acting as it is to very little opportunity to linger on emotions (although Johnson still manages to vastly outshine Dornan). Scenes feel largely disconnected, with tone varying vastly from one to the other. Nothing lasts for any amount of time. Actions very rarely have consequences that extend beyond the next scene, some plot threads are even introduced and resolved in the same scene. An argument begins over Ana not changing her surname on the work email server, but we are never treated to a resolution of this argument. Other plot points feel contrived, particularly when both parents admit not wanting a baby but do not even mention the potential for abortion. Plot largely serves the moment with very little carrying the characters forward. Perhaps the only true character arc comes in the final act when Grey, upon realising Ana could lose the baby after her confrontation with Hyde, overcomes his aversion to having a child and faces (albeit implicitly) the insecurities that stem from his childhood. Unfortunately, this is a rare moment of character consistency that comes decidedly too late. There is very little to the overarching plot and, for a while, the film feels as if there is no end in sight and audiences will be subjected to a never-ending stream of mediocrity carried by the occasional pop tune.
This film’s politics are far from perfect. And it fails to make up for previous ambiguities in the narrative regarding gender representation. Similarly, the brief moralising at the end, which boils down to ‘some people are born rich but that’s fine if they’re nice’, actually raised a groan of disbelief from a woman a few rows back. But it’s hardly a standout film for its sexualised and materialistic content. Compared to the rest of Blockbuster canon, this film is sadly unremarkable. Fifty Shades Freed is boring in every way: the sex isn’t sexy; the action isn’t exciting; and it doesn’t even have the decency to be so morally reprehensible that I can really hate it.
As the prophet Cyndi Lauper once said: girls just wanna have fun. And with the state of our reality, who can really argue with that?