Movie Review: Fifty Shades Darker

A new director and writer bring the series up a notch

Fifty Shades Darker (Padesát odstínů temnoty)
Directed by James Foley
With Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Kim Basinger, Luke Grimes, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Eric Johnson, Rita Ora, Victor Rasuk

The saga of the dominant young billionaire and his submissive English-major girlfriend continues in Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to to the hit Fifty Shades of Grey. The final installment of the trilogy comes out next year.

In a bit of a rarity, the sequel is marginally better than the original entry, which despite the salacious topic was a bit of a bland and dull affair that never delivered on its promise. The sequel has a much stronger plot, adding in several suspicious characters and new twists. This at least gives the audience something to watch. The more controversial aspects of BDSM again largely stay off screen, and the film is at its heart a rather unbelievable fantasy.

While much of cast is the same, there were big changes behind the camera. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Kelly Marcel, who were both relatively inexperienced in feature films, have been replaced.

James Foley took over helming duties for Fifty Shades Darker and the next installment, Fifty Shades Freed, which has already been filmed. He has been directing since 1984 with films such as At Close Range and Glengarry Glen Ross to his credit. The script for both sequels is by Niall Leonard, husband of novel trilogy author E. L. James.

Still a drawback, Jamie Dornan reprises the role of businessman Christian Grey. He is simply miscast, as he never seems to embrace being the control freak that the story requires. A mild-mannered dominator seems a bit of an oxymoron. It is a tough role, as the character needs to be likeable for the film to work. Dornan achieves that, but he misses the hard edge that would have made it more convincing.

Dakota Johnson fits better in the role of Anastasia Steele, the student who in the second film has found an entry-level job in a small publishing house. The actress has matured a bit between films, and shows a lot more control of her character. One point the film tries to put across is that her submissiveness in Grey's sex games is on her own terms. She shows a lot more confidence on screen.

Johnson is the daughter of actress Melanie Griffith, and in a bit of an inside joke Johnson's character quotes some dialogue from Working Girl, one of her mother's hits.

Joining the cast is Kim Basinger as Elena Lincoln, who introduced Grey to BDSM. She makes some hints in the film about having experience in the subject. That is another inside joke, as Basinger starred in Nine ½ Weeks, a 1986 film about a rich executive and his submissive girlfriend. She is one of several new characters who create threats to Anastasia and Christian's relationship.

Anastasia has a new love interest of sorts, or at least someone who is interested in her. Eric Johnson plays Jack Hyde. He actually better captures the blend of creepy charm and forcefulness that the lead role calls for. But he is much less appealing, and would have hurt the film at the box office if he was in the lead. In the small role he has, though, he is quite convincing and suitably slimy.

Oscar and Tony winning actress Marcia Gay Harden shows once again that she can be the best thing in an otherwise mediocre effort. She plays Grace Trevelyan-Grey, the adoptive mother of Christian. Despite the rather ridiculous nature of the film, she leaves no doubt that she buys into the project 100 percent.

For some reason, films or books on this theme almost always have a masked ball, such as the one at the climax of Eyes Wide Shut. Fifty Shades Darker does as well, though it could have been exploited a bit better for some suspense.

Fifty Shades Darker does offer some improvement over Fifty Shades of Grey, but it is far from a good film. It is quite professionally made, but it is a throwback to the softcore Euro-sexploitation films of the 1970s and '80s, like Emmanuelle and, in line with BDSM themes, The Story of O. They offer classy locations, a view of the wealthy lifestyle, hints of forbidden and exotic sexual escapades, and usually a hit song. The Fifty Shades films fall right in line, but don't offer anything beyond the basics of the genre.

But that is unlikely to deter the fans. If you go, stay through the first half of the credits to see scenes from the next installment.

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