Even as it administered a patchouli-scented dose of fan service to James’s hungry readership, 2016’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” was a brittle, brisk surprise, refashioning the book’s lilac prose into a warped romantic comedy of personal boundaries, with S&M as the bargaining currency between Anastasia and Christian — played by Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan with a wary, push-pull dynamic. When director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Kelly Marcel made way, respectively, for James Foley and James’s husband Niall Leonard for “Fifty Shades Darker,” the result unsurprisingly hewed closer to the author’s original gushing vision, with sexual politics that were less thorny and, for all the steam generated on screen, more conservatively patriarchal.
Interesting as it would have been to see a third creative team take the finale up yet another tonal alley, Foley and Leonard unsurprisingly keep “Freed” bound to its source. With Mrs. Grey now mostly in her husband’s gilded grasp, the series’ former tart strain of battle-of-the-sexes comedy has bled almost entirely out of the enterprise, while even our heroine’s sporadic moments of defiance don’t stray far from a plush wish-fulfilment agenda.
But oh, what pretty wishes! And what princely fulfilment! “Fifty Shades Freed” begins where most romances of its ilk would reasonably end: with rich, dewy nuptials fit for a Vanity Fair spread. Quavering vows are exchanged against a wall of antique-blush roses; John Schwartzman’s camera gorges in crystalline close-up on every last silver cufflink and shred of Chantilly lace.
Taking the film on its own material terms, there’s a perverse frisson of pleasure — of sweet, egregiously unequal justice — to be had in watching two people this immaculately beautiful finally unite in quite such accordingly beautiful fashion, and it’s here where James (once more acting as producer) and the filmmakers have us right where they want us. “You own this?” Anastasia asks, gawping at the private jet waiting to whisk them off on a Côte d’Azur honeymoon. “We own this,” her husband smirks in reply, as the film practically pauses for our applause, and maybe even a rosewater tear, at the shared privilege of it all. How far they’ve come.
What this spectacle doesn’t leave us, however, is much road for this relationship to travel in the happy couple’s souped-up, product-placed Audi speedster. James’s trilogy may consume over 1,600 pages of type, but it’s hard to shake the feeling from an early point in “Fifty Shades Freed” (the series’ shortest entry at a light, padded 105 minutes) that perhaps there weren’t quite three films in it. As Anastasia and Christian argue back and forth with only minor variations over admittedly major points of contention — his possessive nature infringing on her charmed career, their disagreement over when to start a family, whether she should remove her bikini top on the beach or not — Leonard’s lumpen script zeroes in on a tinny thriller subplot, centered on the violent, mysteriously vengeful stalking of Anastasia’s smarmy ex-boss Hyde (Eric Johnson) as the main attraction.
This is the terrain for which Foley, at his best a slinky genre stylist with a tobacco-acrid edge, was presumably brought on board, and he gives it a bit of vim: A luxury-vehicle car chase, screeching and weaving at arrogant speed along the highways of Seattle, is a set piece that rattles in the mind longer and louder than the who and why of it all. He can’t do much, however, to juice up a thin, illogical abduction climax that at least gives an admittedly gagged dramatic function to pop star Rita Ora — little-used but zappily charismatic as Christian’s sister Mia, the only member of this marble-clad family you’d conceivably want to hang with for reasons other than sheer monetary osmosis. In a series so obsessively dazzled by its central couple that even actors like Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Ehle are reduced to subservient stick figures in their orbit, that’s an accomplishment.
The trouble with this tunnel vision is that, by round three, there’s nothing left to discover in Anastasia and Christian — characters who, even at their most engaging, weren’t exactly Chekhovian to begin with. With the root of his sadism, her masochism and the mood music their combined issues make together all adequately explored, we’re left mostly rehashing old tensions that, with familiarity, have gone a little slack.
Johnson, so wonderful in the first film, made a game fist of her character’s more capricious conception in the second. This time, her inherent likeability as a performer is all that’s keeping Anastasia, a notionally independent career woman who veers between seething assertiveness and spineless compliance at the script’s will, from sliding off the screen entirely. The extent of Christian’s development, meanwhile, is summed up by the film’s most inadvertently amusing line, delivered by yet another peripheral admirer in his employ: “That GQ profile on you? I love what you’re doing in Africa.” (Dornan even gets a chance to croon Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” at the piano, just to prove just what an awakened heart beats beneath all that bespoke pewter-colored tailoring.
And what of the sex? Perhaps the lone surprise of “Fifty Shades Freed” is just how incidental its erotica has become: There’s no shortage here of lightly spiced bump and grind, staged and shot with salted-caramel smoothness, with nothing more than Johnson’s nipples or a fleeting brush of Dornan’s pubic hedge to prickle delicate sensibilities. But where the first film’s sex scenes, however tame in the grand scheme of things, were integral to setting the terms and tone of the relationship under scrutiny, by this point they’re mostly just (very) attractive digressions, while the once-tremulously mentioned Red Room of Pain has become merely another indulgent facility at Casa Grey, not to mention a handy spare bedroom in the event of a soon-resolved marital squabble. It’ll be a nursery before you know it.
Indeed, a sex-free, PG-13 version of “Freed” could be cut without shedding a second of narrative coherence, such as it is; one could ask what the point of that would be, though similar queries might be leveled at the film as it stands. Intentionally or otherwise, however, perhaps there’s a rueful truth to the gradual dwindling of the films’ kink levels: Sex is just a thing Anastasia and Christian do now, as it is for many a married couple until, in some cases, it eventually isn’t even that any more.
Finally, the film closes with fat French kiss to its fans: a creamy montage of memorable moments from the whole series — mostly, let it be said, from the first two films — scored to a light remix of “Love Me Like You Do,” Ellie Goulding’s soaring pop belter from “Fifty Shades of Grey.” (The new film’s theme, a comparatively generic number by Ora and Liam Payne, isn’t given quite such pride of place.) If that highlight reel is fresher and more vivid than the agreeably silly cashmere diversion that precedes it, it’s hard to begrudge the happy, horny couple a pleasantly boring life together. (Anti-capitalists can begrudge them everything else, but that’s another story.)
Is “Fifty Shades Freed” a wily takedown of married bliss, or at least an acknowledgement that it makes the wildest among us a shade less exciting? Almost certainly not, to go by the contented sighs and cheers that greeted the finale’s dreamily domestic flash-forward at its premiere. Still, it’s fun to imagine this ritzy, ultimately rule-abiding film being at least that provocative.