This is the third film to be adapted from EL James’ trilogy of zillion-selling “mommy porn” S&M bonkbusters, and its protagonists are two attractive young lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other, so it should be a turn-on, if nothing else. And yet Fifty Shades Freed is so unarousing that it could be used as therapy in a sex addiction clinic. The complete lack of intelligence and fun has got to be a factor.
The film opens with Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) getting married to Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), Seattle’s most eligible bachelor. Their high-society wedding is dispensed with in a montage. Then their luxury honeymoon in France is dispensed with in a montage. And then, well, everything else drifts by with so little structure or intrigue that it might as well be a montage, too. Ana and her friends buy dresses; Christian buys a house. Ana drives a car; Christian drives a jet ski. On and on this product placement-heavy conspicuous consumption goes, but there’s hardly any personality to it, and even less plot. Would it be cruel at this stage to mention that the screenwriter, Niall Leonard, also happens to be James’ own husband? Maybe. But, to be fair, his scripting is no more perfunctory than James Foley’s directing. Between them, they seem to have been aiming for the will-sapping vapidity of a Kardashian reality TV show overseen by Tommy “The Room” Wiseau.
Still, Fifty Shades Freed isn’t wholly without incident. Every now and then, Ana goes to her office in a publishing firm, thus establishing that she is the only senior fiction editor in America who doesn’t have a single manuscript or proof copy at home. And every now and then she and Christian bicker about having children – the kind of work-life disagreement which would barely fill the Charlotte storyline in an episode of Sex and the City.
And sometimes – oh so rarely – the film-makers remember that Ana is being stalked by her cartoonishly psychotic former boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), at which point the stupidity ramps up, but not the excitement. Hyde’s hazily motivated attacks on Ana are quashed with laughable ease: Christian’s collection of riding crops would be more likely to do her an injury. But it’s still impossible to understand why Jack is treated so nonchalantly by the authorities. Halfway through the film, he tries to abduct Ana from the Greys’ swanky flat. After her bodyguards have dealt with him – which they do, without breaking a sweat – a police detective reassures her: “Don’t worry about Hyde, we’ve got enough to hold him.” And, somehow, he says it with a straight face. Enough to hold him?! The guy’s just broken into the home of Christian Grey – the wealthiest, most influential man in the city! And he’s held a foot-long knife to Christian Grey’s new bride! Of course you’ve got enough to hold him! You’ve probably got enough to send him straight to the electric chair! But apparently not. A few minutes later, Hyde is granted bail and walks free – and nobody tells Christian. That’s how head-slappingly idiotic Fifty Shades Freed is.
You could argue that none of this vacuousness matters, and that the film exists for its sex scenes. But these tend to be brief, discreet, waist-up interludes. Christian, it seems, is growing out of the whips and chains which obsessed him when the series began. He may be obnoxiously controlling in regards to every other aspect of Ana’s life, but he can’t be bothered with bondage. At their most daring, the newlyweds have sex in a car (a parked car, mind you – safety first), and they have sex on a kitchen table in their Aspen holiday home, during which Christian frets that they might wake up their fellow guests. And while these tame couplings could, in theory, have been titillating, the film’s pervasive joylessness acts as a cold shower. The ever-frowning Dornan has to take the blame. As usual, Johnson brings some much-needed flirtiness and recognisable human emotion to Ana, but Dornan always sounds as if he’s got a blocked nose, and always looks as if he would rather be at tomorrow’s board meeting. In one scene, Christian is so grumpy with Ana that he gives her a “not-tonight-I’ve-got-a-headache” brush-off, and that’s the only moment when Dornan’s performance has any conviction.
As feeble as it is in almost every respect, Fifty Shades Freed might perhaps have been watchable if Christian had been played by Bridget Jones-era Hugh Grant or by Wall Street-era Michael Douglas – or, for that matter, by any actor with confidence and swagger and a devilish twinkle. Instead, we’re stuck with a leading man who seems to be having a miserable time. Everyone in the audience will have a miserable time, too.