Director: James Foley
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Rita Ora, Marcia Gay Harden
The final chapter in the Fifty Shades trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed sees Anastasia ‘Ana’ Steele and Christian Grey’s controversial story come to an end. The adaptations of E.L. James’ best-selling Twilight-inspired-fan-fiction novels have been met with a lot of criticism, with the challengers apparently being far more vocal than the advocates, the books themselves already having suffered this condemnation since they first appeared. And yet both the films and novels have met with commercial and financial success. How can it be that such a provocative, and at times very weak, story can succeed, and succeed well?
Fifty Shades Freed picks up the story at Ana and Christian’s wedding. Without giving too much away, not long after the nuptials the events surrounding a particular villain from the previous film come back to haunt the couple, putting a lot of lives in danger, including Ana’s. This appears to be where a lot of Christian’s infamous control stems from: a desire/need to protect Anastasia. However Ana is a character that, quite unlike her novel-based counterpart, in turn needs to feel free to make her own choices, whilst being able to love a man who attempts to exert his control over every aspect of her life. And thus she ends up putting herself in danger in order to protect not just Christian but others from the repercussions from Fifty Shades Darker.
The issues that surround the Fifty Shades trilogy cannot be denied. Christian’s controlling words and actions towards Ana, sexually or otherwise, have angered the majority of people, whether they be critics, feminists or your every-day filmgoer. It’s easy and understandable to attack the trilogy: its BDSM through line mixed with negative masculine-related themes can be considered backwards and not at all empowering to women. It is easy to question how women, or any kind of audience, can find pleasure and entertainment in seeing a woman so under the thumb of a man. It could be argued that Ana as a character is written in a much stronger and wittier way, a lot more likeable and less meek than E.L. James’ version, meaning she has more substance and could, arguably, stand as a relatable character. She doesn’t always allow herself to be subdued by Christian – she is always aware that she has a choice. Whether that comes down to Foley’s direction, screenwriter Niall Leonard’s interpretation, input from Dakota Johnson or all three, as a standalone character she is perhaps the reason these films keep finding an audience. As a character, Ana is a relatively normal woman thrust into abnormal situations, and the same could be said of Johnson: an actress thrust into the limelight because of the nature of the films and the attention they have attracted. It doesn’t excuse Christian as a character but perhaps it goes some way to providing some explanation as to why these films keep finding audiences.
Unfortunately the opposite can be said of Christian Grey. In the novels he appears more complex, with more reasoning for his burdening issues being provided, as is perhaps natural when you can flesh out characters more in a novel than you can in a screenplay. The novels, despite having Ana’s point of view, essentially revolve around Christian (another point of contention for the books – a woman’s world revolving around a man). In the films we are given more on Ana and as a result Christian falls by the wayside and becomes more villain-esque than fans of the novels might have liked. This becomes especially apparent in Freed, as before any real danger kicks off he throws his instructions at Ana like she’s just another one of his employees. Foley has really stepped up the amount of sex scenes in this final installment, and the content (to say it verges on pornographic might seem obvious, but of all three movies this one really pushes the boundaries and almost blurs the line) along with the reasoning for Christian’s actions in a sexual way become very questionable. There’s one encounter between the couple that is highly questionable, but thanks to the way Ana is written she indeed has the mind to question it herself.
Fifty Shades Freed itself is by no means a strong film. The story is weak, as are the very two-dimensional characters, and it comes across as a money-making cash cow more than anything else. Having said that, as previously mentioned, Johnson as Ana is perhaps what gives the film, and the trilogy, its legs. Rather than playing the submissive throughout (sex scenes not included) she knows when to follow her own mind. At least, most of the time she does. There are times when she appears to be standing up for herself only to give in to the wants of her husband. Thankfully, when they find out some particular news that they weren’t expecting, Ana gets a chance to really stand her ground and put their relationship on the line for the sake of what she wants. Of course this is a minor victory in a losing film, but it stops the whole thing from completely falling apart.
So what exactly is it that makes the Fifty Shades trilogy so successful? Some audiences might say it’s the knight-in-shining-armour appeal of Christian, despite him clearly taking it too far in some instances, playing on the fact some women enjoy being protected and cared for by a man (though in these films it’s taken to the extreme). It could even be argued that it’s an innate need for some females, as thousands of years ago, before language, before individual thought, women would have relied on men to protect and provide without question (of course this still happens today, but we are, for the most part, much more aware and striving to change that worldwide). Some might enjoy the sexual freedom and exploration of it, having not experienced their own sexuality in such a daring (to put it mildly) way. Some might like to see themselves as Ana, a woman who is happy to go along with what her man wants but also isn’t afraid to voice what she wants, even if it displeases him (which, as a story arc, is both beneficial and detrimental to the success of the films). Sometimes women encounter men who are as cold and unfeeling as Christian and hope they can change that in him, and these films play out that fantasy (which is a very dangerous road to go down). Perhaps it’s easier for those who are able to separate fantasy from reality where others see no distinction: right is right and wrong is wrong. Whatever the reason, and making no assumptions or judgements, these audiences are finding something that keeps them coming back for more. So much so that E.L. James even released a novel, Grey, that details Fifty Shades of Grey through Christian’s eyes. Some may like to see this adapted into a film, but for the most part, let’s hope the Greys have finally been freed from the mainstream.