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Fifty Shades Freed review – limp S&M threequel swaps Grey for beige

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades Freed
Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades Freed. Photograph: Doane Gregory/Universal

And so, after three whip-cracking, handcuffing, sleep-inducing chapters of glossy dom/sub drama, the Fifty Shades franchise is finally coming to an end, or, as the wink-wink marketing keeps purring, a climax. In the final chapter, we’re giddy with questions that require an answer. Will two attractive yet underwritten characters keep having mildly kinky sex? And then, ermmmm, oh wait, that’s literally just it.

The phenomenal success of the brand (the first two films have made a combined $950m at the worldwide box office) continues to fascinate those not fascinated with the books given that the only real tension hinges upon whether high-powered pretty boy Christian Grey and his doe-eyed sex slave will keep doing it or not. It’s a set of films that skirt around the trappings of an erotic thriller yet refuse to indulge in any of the lurid murderous plotting that usually goes along with it. There’s a staggering emptiness at the centre and even the supposed eroticism has been underwhelmingly restrained up until now. But with the end in sight, will Fifty Shades Freed finally provide the danger and the sex and the dangerous sex that we’ve all been waiting for?

The answer is a limp and predictable no.

After the non-events of the second film, Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) couldn’t be happier living the high life with her slap-happy lover Christian (Jamie Dornan). The pair get married but their honeymoon is cut short when a face from Ana’s past re-emerges to cause havoc. Christian must try to ensure her safety while also finding a way to manage her increasing independence within the confines of their discipline-heavy relationship.

Any vague hope that the best, or rather least worst, was being saved until last is swiftly made futile by an opening sequence so alarmingly vapid that it feels like a parody. Every emotional beat for the first 15 minutes is dictated by a new materialistic discovery (Oh my God he has his own jet! Oh my God he has his own boat! Oh my God he has his own chef!). Christian appears to treat her like a competition winner with ADD, surprising her with his wealth in an attempt to keep her, and maybe us, entertained. It’s obscenely gratuitous lifestyle porn, so personality-free that it could be watched without volume in a hotel reception, and it’s gradually and inevitably interspersed with more softcore porn, so soft and so boringly frequent that I could almost feel a collective audience sigh every time they got naked again. While it definitely feels as though there’s more sex than usual, it usually involves an element that one can check off with crushing reliability (licking ice-cream off one another – tick; sex in a car – tick; sex with handcuffs – tick). It’s all so comfortable and well-lit, as though it’s directed by someone who’s never actually had sex.

Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades Freed
Dakota Johnson: it’s left entirely up to her to make any of the film remotely watchable. Photograph: Universal

The script, written by Niall Leonard, AKA the Fifty Shades author EL James’s husband, is just exactly what it is: a middle-aged man speculating as to how not only a young couple converse but also, bleakly, how young women interact with one another. There’s zero specificity in any of the bland scenes with Ana and her friends or female colleagues (“Are you OK? Do you want a latte?”) and, instead, Leonard uses what he’s learned about women from commercials (they love shopping, cocktails and bubble baths). The dialogue just exists. Its purpose is to slowly edge the feather-light plot forward rather than provide any depth or humor to any interaction. There’s more of an attempt here to add the loose outline of a thriller narrative to occupy the scenes when they’re not having boring sex but it’s of the daytime soap variety (at one point a character gets kidnapped outside a gym). There’s never any real danger or real emotion or real anything here, to be honest, it’s as if it’s playing in the background, and no one involved can be bothered to add color or life or even a frisson of passion.

As usual it’s left entirely up to the beleaguered Johnson to make any of it even remotely watchable. She remains a compelling presence, trying her darnedest with lifeless words, but, again, she’s stranded by the energy-sucking vortex of nothingness that is Jamie Dornan. He’s better than this (as he has shown with menace in The Fall) but he knows it and his boredom is lazily apparent throughout. Their relationship is also potentially fascinating in this chapter. How does a couple who have based their initial connection on a dom/sub dynamic exist within a marriage? But the film has zero interest in exploring the psychology of this with any complexity, instead offering up superficial proof that he’s empowering her (he lets her drive his car in one scene).

While the films have been quite remarkable in their stodgy dullness, it’s worth recognizing and applauding the significance of the the Fifty Shades saga. Franchise film-making, as widespread as it may be, is still largely male and superhero-centric and there’s something refreshing, and important on a business level at least, about a trilogy of female-focused romantic dramas being treated like event movies with the box office to match. There will, or rather should, be a lasting effect in Hollywood and other better, non-Marvel movies will hopefully be treated with the same grandiosity. It’s just a shame that we had to endure these brainless, plotless, loveless films to get there.

Fifty Shades Freed is released on 8 February in Australia and 9 February in the UK and US

This article titled "Fifty Shades Freed review – limp S&M threequel swaps Grey for beige" was written by Benjamin Lee, for The Guardian on Thursday 8 February 2018 03.34am

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