I don’t believe in the term “guilty pleasure”: if a film, however ropey, gives me pleasure, I’m not ashamed to concede that something about it is working. Still, the delight I take in
Fifty Shades Darker (Universal, 18) pushes this attitude to its limit. The first film based on EL James’s potpourri-porn novels was surprisingly sly, pruning and embellishing the author’s lilac prose with something like irony. This follow-up, directed in gaudily gilded fashion by James Foley, falls into more of the source material’s pitfalls of whiplash plotting and inconsistent, doll-like characterisation.
Still played with sporting gumption by Dakota Johnson, S&M novice Anastasia Steele has gone from a curious but self-contained woman to a yes-no-yes-no marionette to sexual impulse – not necessarily her own. Yet the surface pleasures remain as the camera creamily wallows in yacht-rock luxury, the soundtrack curls up in the breathy cooing of Taylor Swift et al, and the two gorgeous leads amply expose their gorgeousness. It’s not profoundly sexy, it’s not built to last, but it’s swipe-right film-making of the most superficially attractive order.
On to something sincerely beautiful and heart-lifting that I can recommend without a caveat. Mike Mills’s generous, sun-warmed and achingly autobiographical coming-of-age tale
20th Century Women (Fox, 15) is a valentine to the women of various ages who raised him, some more knowingly than others, in the elastically progressive Los Angeles of the 1970s. At the centre of it, in the funkiest, most sweetly spontaneous and best performance of her career, is Annette Bening as a single mother making an effort to move with the times, but still uncertain where or when she’s allowed to stop. Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning play younger models of new femininity, empowered with attitude but no less nervous of what the future holds for them all. It’s a sharp, complicated paean to the ways in which family life can shape our politics and vice versa, made with the soft, loose weave of a mohair throw.