I was lucky/unlucky (delete as appropriate) to experience the opening of Fifty Shades Darker twice. The first run was entirely silent due to a projectionist whom some might label neglectful, but upon second viewing would be forgiven as merciful. A dreary cover of The Scientist (I'm quite partial to Coldplay and even I cringed) is draped over a montage of publishing editor Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) attempting to move on from her fling with corporate sadist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).
After Sam Taylor-Johnson whipped the first of E.L. James’ literary ménage-a-trois into submission with a heavy emphasis on consent, director James Foley cuts his own key for the red room of rumpy and allows the male gaze to slide back into focus somewhat. Ana has apparently gone to great lengths to ignore Christian in favour of pursuing her career, but within five minutes becomes shackled to a cycle of sex, doubt, relent and repeat that stays with us until the end. Grey tries to convince Ana that he’s changed, that he’s ready for a normal relationship, but a rollercoaster of revelation takes the narrative on a downward trajectory from titillating, to tedious, to tortuous.
At the least the opening act is absorbingly steamy in a “might try that when we get home” sort of way. The sex scenes are seductively shot, backed up by a decent pop soundtrack and occasionally risqué, though never quite thriving off the bonus breathing room of the 18 certificate. James may be a questionable writer with even more dubious ideas about abuse, but at least she was happy to dish out full-on filth that dared to suggest the apparently radical notion that women enjoy sex. This adaptation continues to avoid sliding the camera any lower than Christian's belly button so obviously that it's really quite distracting – there’s more full-frontal male nudity in the subliminal frames of Fight Club than this film’s 118 minutes.
Christian may have “changed”, but Dornan still struggles to convey any emotion beyond smugness or vague angst, though Johnson is so convincing in her role that it makes Ana’s constant forgiveness even more exasperating. If the upcoming finale is to be as sexually tame as the current duo (my knowledge of the book is sketchy, but I don’t think a sudden devolution into heavy-leather fetishism is on the cards), we’re forced to investigate the substance when the surface fails. For all her alleged sexual agency, Ana is permanently falling into Christian's arms the moment his puppy-dog eyes show signs of moisture. Sacrificing realistic reactions for dramatic effect can only take you so far, and it's hard to take their 'romance' at all seriously when any sane person would have shipped Christian off to the nearest therapy session in less time than it takes to slip on a blindfold.
And that’s exactly the garment Ana appears to be saddled with as she remains forever blind to Christian’s overbearing, creepy nature. He’s still as distrustfully guarded as ever, despite promising "no more secrets" as the foundation of his and Ana's fresh start. This increasing discomfort is not helped by a pair of icky, half-baked sub-plots. One involves Christian’s past affair with steely-eyed dominatrix Elena (a thankless task for Kim Basinger), and the other makes a villain of Ana’s loathsome boss (Eric Johnson). That’s not a spoiler: the instant you see his comically wicked grin and loose strands of greasy blonde hair, you know where things are headed.
By the third act, irritation becomes exasperation as Christian’s airbrushed family gain further prominence and a hint of church bells chime in to remind us of the book’s roots in Twilight fan-fiction. What begins as a promising sequel to an unfairly dismissed first encounter slowly transfigures into a redefinition of BDSM: boring, disturbed, stilted melodrama. It's like being handcuffed to a bed and teased exuberantly, only for the dominant party to fall asleep, oblivious to our loud bellowing of the safe word as the chains begin to chafe.
An amiable approach to kink and some killer tunes can't save this sequel from the law of diminishing returns.