The "Fifty Shades" franchise packs up its riding crops, handcuffs, and nipple clamps as it reaches its third and climactic final chapter, concluding the story of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and her tumultuous romance with brooding, kink-loving billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).
The opening scenes of "Fifty Shades Free" find the couple tying the knot in front of a crowd of family and friends. Though a wedding is what you'd traditionally expect to be the climax of any other romance series, there are plenty more obstacles in the couple's path toward happily ever after. Most crucially the couple must deal with Ana's unhinged, potentially homicidal former boss (Eric Johnson), looking for revenge after being fired for trying to sexually assault Ana in the previous film.
The premise of the mildly kinky romance series has always been ridiculous (though never as ridiculous as I continually hope). But while these past two installments have brought in elements -- like the boss plotline -- that tilt toward a soapy, 90's erotic-thriller vibe, these films don't so much have a plot as they bounce from incident to incident, pausing every so often to engage in the perfunctory sex scenes that are its raison d'être. Though capably directed by James Foley from a script by Niall Leonard (husband of the book's author E.L. James), the film too often resorts to ridiculous plot developments to fill out the story; superficial complications that are solved almost as soon as they arise.
Despite overflowing with adult situations, the source material maintains a somewhat adolescent approach to sex. And as a portrait of a BDSM relationship, the "Fifty Shades" films have always been hopelessly vanilla. Audiences looking for a more complicated exploration of dom/sub dynamics are better off turning to films like "Secretary," "The Duke of Burgundy," or even this year's "Phantom Thread." There's also the troubling aspect of the series that insists on pathologizing Christian's appetite for BDSM as stemming from dark psychological trauma in his past. Of course, plenty of people with a yen for bondage are perfectly well-adjusted individuals.
But what the films do get right, and where they're most interesting -- and perhaps even useful -- is as explorations of consent. For all the hand-wringing over their sex scenes, far more time is spent in each of these films watching Ana and Christian negotiate and establish clear boundaries of what's ok and what's not, both in and outside the bedroom. The couple are constantly negotiating limits, learning where each other's boundaries lie.
Christian's character may be controlling and possessive, but it's Ana who dominates these films. As each installment traces Ana's evolution from naïve virgin to confident woman happily taking charge of her sexuality, she embraces her inner bossy bottom and learns that enjoying being submissive in the bedroom doesn't require blind obedience elsewhere.
What this series ends up delivering is closer to luxury lifestyle porn than actual porn: the camera lingers over private jets, yachts, and closets full of designer clothes far more often than rope on naked skin. Truthfully, the series' celebration of extravagant wealth could use being interrogated more thoroughly than its sexual politics. Maybe the fact that we've become a bit more skeptical of our billionaires in the time since the series first rose to popularity is what's shading things (no pun intended).
Even if they only occasionally indulged in their inherent campiness, the "Fifty Shades" movies do embrace their true purpose as glossy, escapist fantasies. Some people like superheroes; others like watching handsome, angsty playboys romance and occasionally spank their willing partners.
These films aren't good exactly, but they do bring pleasure to a lot of people and that shouldn't be dismissed.
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan still don't share an iota of chemistry on screen, and Dornan has never conveyed the magnetism that Christian Grey supposedly possesses. In these films the actor is a handsome block of wood. Having portrayed Ana for three films now, Johnson has always been the best part of these films, even when she's surrounded on all sides by nonsense. While never winking at the audience, she's brought a wonderful comic timing and sly wit that these films desperately need.
Like Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson once they'd finished with the "Twilight" films, I hope Johnson finds more artistically fulfilling projects from here on out. She's has already demonstrated an interest in more compelling material, through her collaborations with Luca Guadagnino (2015's "A Bigger Splash" and a remake of "Suspiria" due out later this year). Now that she's been fifty shades freed from this franchise, here's hoping she's able to move on to films more worthy of her talents.