Part of the problem when reviewing a film from a trilogy, or to a lesser extent from a series is that these films are a single act in a larger story. They are often best looked at as a whole, and not piecemeal as they release. Many times when asking people who enjoy the story I’ve found that my complaints with the writing, directing, etc. have fallen on deaf ears and have been explained away as a difference in taste or simply a subjective lack of interest.
So instead, I will look at the films in two different categories or through-lines in order to determine if the films, and the series as a whole, were a success. These two factors will be: romantic chemistry and plot. This is to hopefully decide what works and what doesn’t with the series.
Romantic chemistry: Fifty Shades is a romance. This doesn’t necessarily imply that the main male character is required to propose on a cliff, with their hair blowing in the wind. Rather, it means that the main tension of the film should be a character focused ‘will they or won’t they’. Or at least, that’s one direction they can go with. The other direction is far more interesting in my opinion and it’s the type of plot Fifty Shades uses; instead of will they, won’t they, it is a couple facing trials and tribulations together. For this to work, however, the audience has to hope against hope that they make it through. They have to believe in the two characters’ love.
Fifty Shades fails on that point. Not because of the stars’ attraction to one another, and not because of how the film is shot — rather it fails in the characters themselves. Christian Grey wants a singular thing for Anastasia Steele at the outset of this trilogy. He wants a new ‘submissive’. He can only find one way to gain pleasure and that is through BDSM. Forgetting the film’s myriad of issues in its representation of the practice we will move on to the point. Christian only wants to control Ana — when she falls for him she falls for the person, not the sex. Why does this matter?
It creates a false dichotomy of what the goals of the two characters are. Christian wants nothing of a traditional, romance-based relationship with Ana, Ana allegedly wants a relationship. It isn’t perfectly clear. By the end of the first film Christian has dominated and hurt Ana, and she decides she doesn’t want a part in that and leaves. By the start of the second film the first 10 minutes show us that she is dodging him and not returning his calls. By the end of the second film they are engaged.
The issue herein is that discerning the ‘why’ has become nearly impossible. Multiple times Christian and Ana flip flop on what their desire for their relationship is to the point where Christian’s proposal feels so far out of the left field it almost seems as though there was no other way a third entry to the film could happen otherwise. Because the Christian we’ve come to know throughout is cold, shut off and he doesn’t want an interpersonal connection outside of his domination.
The plot of a romance can be just about anything. From a young couple in high school to a multi-billionaire courting a college student. All it truly requires to work is a belief that these two people want to be together. This is where the plot directly obstructs Christian and Ana’s romance from working on any level. Christian seems to hate Ana. Not just who she is, but what she is.
The films paints Ana as naïve more than once. She has multiple lines about not knowing how to use a computer (as a college student no less), not knowing what different sexual instruments are and a complete lack of information on anything Christian brings up according to his fetish. Christian, from what we’ve seen, surrounds himself with only family and other hyper intelligent people. He is, after all, an incredibly successful businessman. This comes to a head multiple times in the final film of the trilogy: Fifty Shades Freed. Where he yells at Ana for using the wrong email in her office, calls her indecent for sunbathing on a topless beach, laughs at her assuming she could have a daughter when she becomes pregnant and so on. This never ends, this constant berating of her intelligence. It is wholly unclear how Christian can stand Ana, let alone marry her and have a child with her. The issue is that the writing of this series conflates sexual attraction with deep, meaningful love.
I believe that a romance has to do one thing above all else — and that is make you want the characters to be together. Whether it be during their darkest moments, most harrowing arguments or even when they see other people. It should pain you to see them apart and lift your heart when they’re together. These couples are Adonis and Bianca, Himeko and Sook-Hee, Jack and Ennis, Jack and Rose and even Edward and Bella. The source material Shades is based on at least does the bare minimum of building a mutual attraction between its two main characters.
Edward is so attracted to Bella that he avoids interaction with her, and Bella so much so that she craves interaction with Edward. Whatever you think about E. L. James or Stephenie Meyer, only one of these authors had a true understanding of what will make a romance truly work.