In praise of… Sam Taylor Johnson and intelligent casting

Barely seconds passed after it was announced Sam Taylor-Johnson OBE would direct Fifty Shades of Grey before questions were flung in the Turner-Prize-nominated-artist/photographer/filmmaker’s direction. Would she/could she polish this turd (that the world has devoured)? How far would she go? Would she satisfy the die hard fans of the book? Could she gratify the critics… the smirking, raised eyebrow secret-kindle-readers?

I won’t focus on the scrutiny of a female director before the film was even out the blocks, because I know Sam Taylor-Johnson has knocked it out of the park – and I haven’t even seen the film.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, on discussing the complexity of finding strength of character in the apparently submissive Anastasia, Taylor-Johnson said:

I thought, if we can take this girl on a journey, where we empower her and don’t leave her as a victim, that’s job done […] I think it was Elisabeth Shue who said that if you start a movie with a woman seen through a man’s eyes, that woman is objectified by him throughout. So we deliberately don’t start that way. We start with Anastasia coming into his world and grappling with it – so she’s an autonomous person.”

Taylor-Johnson is highlighting the issue with so many onscreen characters written for women. Take Drive, one of my favourite films. Gosling’s performance is the equivalent of painting the blank canvas of our minds with a rainbow of colours. He defines the Driver before our eyes. Carey Mulligan’s character on the other hand (which imdb tells me is called Irene – strangely this didn’t imprint on my mind), is presented to us via the Driver’s gaze… a poor struggling mum, looking for a knight-in-shining-armour, who, doesn’t say much. Mulligan has commented:

“It was strange, because most of the film I’m just staring at him, and he’s staring at me” – Carey Mulligan on Drive.

That said, the casting of Mulligan elevated a sparse script. It sparked interest, turned a clichéd character on its head and engaged an audience.

Back to Fifty Shades and Taylor-Johnson’s autonomous approach to portraying Anastasia – the person. Nothing helps set the tone and intention of a film more than the cast. Great casting has the power to not only guild a script but find truth and meaning that isn’t always there to begin with. Dakota Johnson looks set to be an inspired choice for Anastasia. It reinforces how important thoughtful, intelligent, creative, thinking-outside-the-box casting is; how it can compel, give life and ask questions beyond the writer’s intentions.


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