REVIEW by Emma Champion: FIFTY SHADES DARKER (2017) starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson **WARNING** Spoilers and Explicit Language

I feel sorry for Jamie Dornan.  Sure – I would understand anyone finding it difficult to muster sympathy for the beautiful-looking, happily-married, millionaire movie star; however, I get the feeling he is a man who knows full-well that the franchise causing his career to sky-rocket is not going to be nominated for any Oscars® anytime soon.

For fans of the Twilight movies (and those of you familiar with my reviews will know this does not include me), it might interest you to know that literary phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey started life online as fan fiction inspired by the glittery-vampire melodromance.  The quality of the writing in EL James’s trilogy of ‘kinky f***ery’ (protagonist Anastasia’s choice of words, not mine) leaves a lot to be desired – full of overused phrases such as ‘Holy Cow!’, and poorly-constructed sentences – but do you think James gives a dusty f***?  She’s laughing all the way to the bank – her vault inside which, I’m sure, resembles Harry Potter’s Gringotts stash.

The same goes for Mr Dornan, the only difference being that, unlike EL James, we know he is better than this – the evidence is clear in such works of prestige as BBC2’s The Fall and wartime drama Anthropoid (2016).  You can see how he cringes whenever he has to talk about these movies – even breakfast TV sweetheart Lorraine Kelly is convinced ‘he knows they’re rubbish’.  So surely we can forgive him for not turning down the multi-million dollar contract he was offered to play emotional f***wit, Christian Grey?  What would you or I have done in the same situation?  Hell, he’s giving EL James a piggy-back ride to that bank of hers, and the sign above the door reads ‘DORNAN’S’.

If Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) was the cold, post-coital wet patch on the duvet, then Fifty Shades Darker (2017) is morning-after breakfast-in-bed with hot coffee and buttered toast.  To call this ‘Darker’ is somewhat misleading.  If anything, it should have been named Fifty Shades of Warm & Fuzzy with the Occasional Hint of Danger that Doesn’t Quite Materialise (not as pithy, I grant you).  There was so much scope for a darker tale – a disgruntled former submissive packing heat, a lecherous, over-familiar boss, a spectacular helicopter crash – but none of these elements packed enough punch – the latter of which not even being shown in full.

For the most part, Dornan’s characteristically-frowny Grey grins like a Cheshire Cat with a coat hanger jammed in his jaws whilst sniffing laughing gas and watching an episode of Seinfeld.  It seems like a bit too drastic a leap from the guy who wouldn’t smile for a photo shoot, to this happy buffoon – as pretty a smile as it is.  Love, however, is transforming the man who was all about the boundaries, as he slowly allows Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) to break down his walls and, ahem, ‘access’ him via the cracks appearing in his armour.

Speaking of my dearly-beloved Dornan, there are glimmers of the actor we know him to be, particularly in the scenes where he squirms revealing details of Grey’s murky past, and as Ana marks out the scarred ‘no-go-zone’ with lipstick on his chest.  The producers have also allowed him to have a little more of his signature facial hair this time – this, coupled with the extra bulk his has built up in his torso since the last installment, and he is an impressive, masculine presence to behold.  On paper, Christian Grey is very hard to like, and yet, Dornan plays him in a way that endears you to him, which can only be a testament to his wealth of untapped talent buried beneath this bit of nonsense.

Johnson, meanwhile handles the material with grace, delivering a subtle performance in wholly unsubtle territory, and providing most of the movie’s much-needed humour.  Johnson is also responsible for my favourite moment in the film – a massive nod to her real-life mother Melanie Griffith’s hit eighties classic Working Girl (1988) – when she delivered Tess McGill’s famous ‘I expect you to call me Tess’ speech verbatim as Ana is promoted and gains an assistant.  It was all I could do not to leap from my seat in pure joy and start singing Carly Simon’s ‘Let the River Run’.

I must also take a moment to acknowledge the supporting cast members – Kim Basinger cast as the notorious ‘Mrs Robinson’ is a particularly clever touch, given that she once starred in her own, equally-controversial cinematic – ahem – ‘romp’, 9 1/2 Weeks (1986). Marcia Gay Harden as Christian’s adoptive mother Grace, plays the doting parent to perfection; and we must not forget the impossibly-broad-shouldered Max Martini returning as the indispensable Taylor the Driver – a man so ‘hench’ that he makes Christian Grey look like a skinny little girl.  In fact, all of the cast from the first film make an appearance – Rita Ora as Christian’s sister Mia, Luke Grimes as brother Elliot – but the most mystifying of all is Eloise Mumford as Ana’s room mate Kate Kavanagh, who is 30 years of age playing age 21-22, and it shows.  We weren’t born yesterday, Love – and neither were you, it would seem.  Ooh – Meow!

As a woman, I am acutely aware of what I can only describe as ‘brainwashing’ at work in this sickly sequel.  Christian Grey is now painted as the epitome of relationship wish-fulfillment – filthy rich (‘filthy’ being the operative word, the cheeky devil), stunning on the eye, attentive – ahem – ‘in-and-out’ of the bedroom, fiercely protective, potently possessive, and utterly besotted with his missus – providing hearts and flowers in abundance for Ana and, ultimately, bewitching the hormones of female audience members.  All this from a character who thinks it’s okay to batter and control women for sexual gratification!

This is the only explanation for why, despite this movie’s hammy script and hefty helping of cheese, I found myself completely and utterly drawn in – eyes wide, gawking at Dornan’s muscular physique and sighing at his every romantic gesture.  I left the cinema making plans to never date again unless it was with a man like that, and to pre-order the Blu-Ray ASAP.

Well played, Universal Pictures – well played.  Hashtag: MUG.

And, yes, there is sex.  Gratuitous and plenty-of.  However, I still think it’s odd that we have not seen Christian Grey fully in the buff, given his exhibitionist and cavalier attitude to intimacy.  Although, this may just be my inner pervert lustfully praying to get a glimpse at the good stuff.

Overall, this is a gimmick morphed into a more traditional Harlequin-style romance, only the transition feels clumsy and mistimed.  It would have been nicer to see Christian evolve at a slower pace, coming around to the idea of ‘Vanilla’ love little by little.  Instead, we are hoiked head first into a vom-fest of ardour that doesn’t manage to strike the same steely tone as its predecessor.  Darker is a different beast.  Whether ‘different’ means ‘good’ is another matter.

That said, all of this irrelevant.  I’m still in love with Jamie Dornan, I still bought a ticket to see this, and I’ll invest in it further upon its Home Entertainment release – thus proving that a film doesn’t have to be good to be gold in terms of a return.  Upon its worldwide debut, Fifty Shades Darker raked in $146 million – a number which continues to – ahem – ‘go up’.

Fifty Shades Darker is showing in cinemas nationwide NOW.  BBFC rating: 18.