In the final film in the trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed, Anastasia and Christian get married, have lots of sex, and battle a villain from their past. James Foley directs from a screenplay by Niall Leonard, itself adapted from the novel by E. L. James. It stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan.
The things I am willing to do for this website continue to astound me. But after years of enthusiastically goose stepping right past the Fifty Shades franchise, in print and on film, here we finally are. We did a podcast episode on the first two. And despite frequent pleas in our Slack group for someone, anyone else to cover this ******* thing, the unsavoury duty has once again fallen at my feet. They gave me The Emoji Movie. And now they’ve given me Fifty Shades Freed.
Having said that, “*******” does bring me neatly to the point. I’ve never written about these films, so despite their cultural ubiquity I feel that a brief primer probably wouldn’t hurt. So: the Fifty Shades trilogy originated as Twilight fan-fiction rewritten as trashy self-insert erotica. Which, as a starting point, is already hilarious. When you’re the lesser, worse-written version of ******* Twilight, the bar is already so low that the only way of getting underneath it is to become two-dimensional – a memo that E. L. James evidently received while writing the characters.
And what characters! The lead is Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), which is the low-brow masturbatory fantasy equivalent of calling an action hero Macho McStubbleface. She’s your average, plain, timid, innocently virginal everyday Seattle girl who starts out working in a hardware store but, entirely by being herself, manages to attract the romantic attention of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a handsome, for some reason world-famous billionaire who’s a little bit like Batman, if instead of fighting crime Bats deeply immersed himself in BDSM culture. Which… I guess more or less is Batman, now that I think about it.
So, in the first one, Fifty Shades of Grey, they had a whirlwind romance that ended because Christian’s proclivities went a bit darker than Anastasia was necessarily okay with. But in the second one, Fifty Shades Darker, they got back together because Christian did her a solid by helping out with her lecherous boss who was secretly a psychotic obsessive. His name is Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), and in this film he has reimagined himself as a kind of low-rent supervillain who, despite being an unemployed book editor, is somehow weirdly adept at corporate espionage, sabotage, disguise and kidnapping.
This really is a lot more like Batman than I think I’m comfortable with.
Anyway, Anastasia and Christian are married now, and Jack is really pissed off that Anna didn’t let him rape her in the second one. (That is literally the entire extent of his villainous motivation, by the way. I’m not even being facetious.) And as far as story goes, that really is just about it. This, of course, is the problem when you try and turn three novels of pulp-erotica tripe into three feature-length movies with an actual coherent narrative. You quickly discover that there isn’t one. It’s just a series of random rich-guy-normal-girl fantasies interspersed with the odd bit of gratuitous spanking – usually set to the beat of some licensed pop song by a man-stealing starlet.
What you have to wonder is how this franchise became popular in the first place. Its pandering drivel aimed mainly at women and so shouldn’t be held at a particularly high standard, but most women I’ve met are smart and reasonable, and yet they still like this ****. It’s perplexing.
And it’s especially weird considering that all Christian’s weird preamble doesn’t amount to much. It takes, like, one and a half movies for him to unveil “the Red Room”, which is basically just his bedroom but with Amsterdam-style lighting and leather. The dude’s whipping out medieval shackles and clamps and torture devices, but it never really goes beyond him looking at them wistfully and waving them under Anastasia’s nose, until they eventually have what seemed to me to be quite boring, ordinary sex. I found myself wondering if he had another blindfold going spare just so I didn’t have to watch his clearly-waxed arse in the missionary position bob up and down like a balding holidaymaker in a hotel pool.
All the germs of decent ideas here turn out to flesh-eating tropical germs. The kind of thing that makes you **** out your liquefied organs. The first couple dealt with Christian’s upbringing as the sex slave of a much older rich woman. But the revelation there was that he was terrible at relationships because he hadn’t yet met the girl who could fix his intense mommy issues – you could have figured that out from the book jacket! And the idea that there’s any suspense in who that magical saviour girl might be is so laughable that it borders on intentionally satirical. Although that would be giving the author far too much credit.
Ana is so flagrantly the Chosen One that in this movie Christian privately flies her and her besties to a secluded mountain retreat that he happens to own just so they can have a fabulous hiking holiday. E. L. James – who, I might add, originally self-published under the pen name “Snowqueens Icedragon” – is on record saying that the Fifty Shades trilogy is, “My midlife crisis writ large. All my fantasies in there, and that’s it.”
The big idea in Fifty Shades Freed is that Ana is finally establishing her own dominant power in this weird relationship. And that manifests mostly as her putting a flirty – and implausibly beautiful, naturally – architect well and truly in her place. Christian is so impressed with this that he lets Ana drive the car. Maybe if she twats him with a ping pong paddle he’ll let her do something really commanding. Like, I dunno, pick her own outfits.
This is the problem, of course. Written down it sounds like I’m just making **** up as I go along. And this is undeniably campy wish-fulfilment nonsense. But the films treat it like it’s some kind of sacred text. Fished from the sticky pool of effluvia forcefully expelled by all the ***** housewives who realised, en masse, that they could suddenly get away with essentially reading **** in public entirely guilt-free. The Dead ***** Scrolls, you might say. Imagine how much fun these films might be if they just embraced how **** they were.
And don’t even get me started on the bit with the ice cream.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.