The Fifty Shades franchise has always been a curio of sorts. It doesn’t dive deep into what makes Anastasia and Christian’s tortured romance work but instead focuses on the incidents that will break or build their love for each other. The kink has always felt like an afterthought, further bolstering Christian’s inability to conform to the suburban image of matrimony. With Fifty Shades Freed, the inciting incidents are at constant odds with the sweeping romance the trilogy has tried to develop. When the main thrust of the story is actually just about a couple of beautiful people thrusting into each other, then what’s left?
That isn’t to discount Fifty Shades Freed’s freewheeling qualities, of which there are many, but it brings to my mind an important question about how these movies are supposed to work, if at all. By the third one, are we to already believe in the sanctity of this relationship and be okay with whatever they end up doing no matter how menial? Or are we to seek their relationship to be tested by employing other tactics? Director James Foley doesn’t know the answer to those questions either, so he directs a flat and tired closing entry that can’t decide if it’s going to metaphorically fuck or actually fuck.
All kidding aside, I say that last statement in earnest and honest curiosity. Fifty Shades Freed marries the alternative couple within the first ten minutes and then picks up whatever plot trope it can before barreling towards a conclusion it’s not very sure of how to handle. So, it doesn’t. It sticks the accumulation during the closing credits when everyone is already heading for the door.
Scorned publisher Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) has returned from the last film with a taste for vengeance. He wants to make Ana (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan) pay for ruining his life. The newly married couple are also dealing with those cutesy things that newly married couples only go through, like building a new home and choosing to switch their last names or not. Wait a second, shouldn’t you be settled on the last names issue before you decide to wed? If this already sounds overstuffed, just know that there has to be at least 10 scenes of vanilla copulation or their love isn’t proved to be real. There’s also the matter of Christian’s old dominant (Kim Basinger) and her importance over Ana. Anyway, stuff happens.
I come back to James Foley’s clumsy hand for a reason. The first Fifty Shades succeeded in spades in showing Ana’s own sexual awakening as something born out of empathy and not disdain. The dynamic between her and Christian was dissected by director Sam Taylor-Johnson, and for the worse. It revealed something hollow and fantasized. If that’s to be attributed to E.L. James’ source material or not is a different story. As it shows in Fifty Shades Freed though, we see Ana overextending herself to please Christian while he only betrays her trust. It’s put up on display as frivolous marriage kinks and not honest to goodness issues to address. Foley doesn’t seem sure of what exactly the story is trying to be, so he directs limply and without dictation. The multiple steamy subplots keep the same aesthetic as the main narrative, so they end up being garishly naïve and without any personality.
If the plot should descend into camp or not has always been on my mind. This and Fifty Shades Darker both strike me as films that play things to straight. Even the winking attitude that sometimes leaks through feels like a tease. By making a trilogy that boils down to two people trying boring things in the bedroom while going through conventional relationship issues, then what are we left with? Not much.
Dakota Johnson, once again, is trying her damnedest to make the material better than it is. In a trilogy that constantly usurps any chance for her character to take on any kind of individual agency, Johnson is saddled with making any moment work. Yet, there’s this off-the-cuff amiability that makes her performance warmer than this story ever had the capability of being. Less can be said for Jamie Dornan’s wooden interpretation of Christian. For a guy that’s supposedly into some pretty kinky stuff, Dornan plays it off like he’s the most boring and predictable businessman to ever exist. But then again, it’s hard to make anyone believe in a relationship that revolves around how tight the handcuffs should be.
Fifty Shades Freed’s title, as informed to me by another theater patron, is supposed to be about setting Christian free from his trauma. You know, he was once an orphan. That’s some seriously screwed up shit. But to me, the title alludes to something deeper and much more troubling: The audience is now free to find a new (and hopefully guilt-free) love story to luxuriate in. But what’s there to choose when misaligned and flavorless dreck like this is thrust onto an audience too eager to be submissive?