Blu-ray Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (Unrated Edition)

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There is but one reason to see Fifty Shades of Grey: the refreshingly, surprisingly offbeat performance by Dakota Johnson, who delivers a true breakthrough performance as Anastasia Steele. The blockbuster adaptation of E.L. James’ sensational novel of the same name is otherwise just a “Skinemax”-worthy bit of eroticism dressed up in A-list production values. This reminds me of all the ’80s-era Shannon Tweed movies I used to stay up late for when I was a kid, knowing I would see copious amounts of softcore nudity. But Johnson is no Tweed, and I mean that in the best way possible. Though undeniably attractive, she possesses just enough “plain Jane” ordinariness (we’re talking by Hollywood standards here, of course) to make it believable. And Johnson pulls off a minor miracle by infusing her role with a winking humor that manages to deflate the oh-so-serious pomposity of director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film.

Fifty Shades office (380x253).jpgFor those who don’t know (and I didn’t, having never read the book), here’s a quick recap. UW (Vancouver campus; i.e. southwestern Washington State) English lit major Ana meets billionaire businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, TV’s The Fall and Once Upon a Time) at his impressive Seattle office building. She’s interviewing him, subbing for her ailing journalism major friend Kate (Eloise Mumford). Christian is immediately taken by this young woman who dared to wear a frumpy outfit (again, Hollywood standards) amongst all his ultra-chic female minions. After a few cursory meet-ups (an unexpected one even occurs at the hardware store Ana works at), Christian propositions Ana. He makes it clear he doesn’t do “romance” or “the girlfriend thing.” He wants her to be his submissive. That is, after she signs a lengthy legal document outlining her consent to be dominated sexually by him.

Fifty Shades Jamie Gornan (380x253).jpgWhat follows (after much thought on Ana’s part and some amusing contractual negotiations) is a series of tastefully photographed sex scenes between Christian and Ana. Honestly the most shocking aspect of it all is just how rote the whole “erotic” exercise feels. Let’s face it, in this day and age people can log onto websites boasting free live feeds of real people broadcasting their sex life as it unfolds straight from their own bedrooms. Why would anyone waste their time with something as quaint and tame as the T&A of Fifty Shades of Grey? Even if you’re not looking for in-your-face, explicit raunch, there’s far sexier material available than this limp stuff. And, unfortunately, Jamie Dornan is not up to the challenge of matching (or even approaching) the idiosyncrasies of Dakota Johnson’s performance. He may be a good looking guy, but as Christian Grey he exhibits all the charisma and passion of Hayden Christensen playing Anakin Skywalker (that is to say, no true charisma or passion at all; not a knock against Christensen in general, just his terrible work in the Star Wars prequels).

Again, the production values are absolutely stylish and top level, well represented by Universal’s outstanding Blu-ray presentation. The 1080p transfer allows us to bask in the appropriately steely grays and moody blues of Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography. McGarvey is a two-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer (for Atonement in 2007 and Anna Karenina 2012). If that’s not enough to constitute a hot track record, he also shot The Avengers (2012). The digitally-shot film is simply terrific to look at. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is awesome as well. It makes great use of all channels, which is an impressive feat for a non-action, dialogue-based film. Little audio surprises abound, such as the way the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” emanates from the rear channels while Ana giddily makes pancakes.

Fifty Shades Dakota Johnson Jamie Gornan (380x251).jpgI never saw Fifty Shades in theaters and proceeded directly to the “unrated cut” presented on Universal’s Blu-ray, so I can’t speak about differences (the "unrated" apparently features an alternate ending). The “unrated cut” runs three minutes longer than the R-rated (I’m assuming the ever-so-brief penis shot wasn’t part of the R-rated?). As for supplements, fans will probably rush to click on the “Tease of Fifty Shades Darker,” but this 30 second trailer offers nothing of interest. Luckily there’s quite a bit of bonus material to be found here, including 50 minutes worth of mini-featurettes delving deeper into the main and supporting characters (we get a few brief tastes of how much loopier Dakota Johnson’s performance could’ve been, based on some alternate line readings).

“Behind the Shades” is a 20-minute ‘making of’ featurette. We hear from the author of the source novel herself in “E.L. James & Fifty Shades” (six minutes). “Fifty Shades: The Pleasure of Pain” (nine minutes) delves very lightly into BDSM culture via more cast and crew interviews. If still galleries are your thing (they’re not mine), “Christian's Apartment: 360 Degree Set Tour” might hold some interest. There are also music videos for Skylar Grey’s “I Know You” and The Weeknd’s “Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey).” There’s even a short featurette about the making of the “Earned It” video.

Fifty Shades with friend (380x253).jpgIt’ll be interesting to see how Dakota Johnson modulates her performance as Anastasia over the next two sequels. Fans of E.L. James’ books will likely continue to provide a ready-made audience for these follow-ups. Let’s hope Fifty Shade Darker and Fifty Shades Freed are more compelling than Fifty Shades of Grey.

The Blu-ray Combo Pack includes a standard DVD and downloadable Digital HD copy.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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