After her release from a mental institution, the self-mutilating young Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) lands a job as secretary to E. Edward Grey (James Spader), which, however strange, is a welcome escape from her dysfunctional family – and her on/off boyfriend Peter (Jeremy Davies). As Mr Grey’s repressed fetishes rise to the surface on Lee’s unintentional provocation, the not so ordinary office romance gets dangerously out of control. But not for them . . .
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Exquisitely bizarre, tantalisingly entertaining and often oddly funny, Secretary is nothing if not original. But not just for the sake of it; it sets up characters who on the surface are only a degree or two out of the range defined as ordinary or average, but deep down, they’re decidedly unconventional to the point of being borderline sane – if we were to be brutally judgemental. Which of course, society is. Exploring the attractions of pain and healing, control and submission, The Secretary is at once an erotic cactus and a blooming orchid. The joy of Secretary is that it avoids all the pitfalls of turning its central characters into freaks or objects of derision. It doesn't laugh at them (beyond the smile anything bizarre will elicit) or judge them or confine them to the outcast bin. Nor does the screenplay suggest they need curing, which is perhaps the most refreshing and uplifting element. This bold and unconventional approach is matched by bold and unconventional performances from James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, each a minimalist here, gently squeezing their character out, drop by drop, glance by glance, twitch by twitch. Spank by spank …. This is the love story for anyone who feels they don’t quite belong in the mainstream of humanity, and a recognition of our diversity as unique individuals.
Review by Louise Keller:
Don’t let the ordinary title of this splendidly edgy film make you believe that you are about to see anything that is ordinary. Don’t let the fact that one of the leading characters has self-mutilating tendencies allow you think for one instant that this is a heavy drama. Secretary is, in fact, a comedy, in the guise of an original and darkly compelling love story of two misfits who find each other in the most bizarre circumstances. But let me extend a little warning for those who are not comfortable with S & M themes and scenes that this film displays. I must admit that I loved every moment of this unusual film that works especially well because Steven Shainberg refuses to treat the subject as sensational, but simply tells the story. With broad-stroke parallels to PT Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, Secretary boasts two stunning performances by two remarkable actors. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes every single moment count as she transgresses from nervy, insecure loner, having just suffered a nervous breakdown, to an assured, sexual Eve in her own garden of Eden, having discovered her Adam and her own variety of apple. James Spader seems to delight in playing strange, offbeat characters; his facial expressions convey so much with so little. Jeremy Davies (who always uses his hands to such expressive mastery) is strangely appealing as Lee’s beau, who appears only at first glance to have much in common with her. It is clear from the very beginning, that this job for a secretary is no ordinary job. After all, the already hanging sign with the words ‘Secretary wanted’, surrounded by theatrical lights that go on and off when required, is a clear indicator that no-one lasts very long in this job. ‘I wanna be bored’ Lee reassures her potential employer, when he spells out the downsides of the daily tasks. As for the tasks, in the first instance, they include setting mouse-traps, going through the garbage finding files that have been erroneously discarded and dealing with the most unlikely, demonstrative visitors. But then, of course, the tasks and expectations become far more bizarre and personal. One of the reasons that Secretary works so effectively, is the fact that everything happens slowly and with total credibility. Nothing is out of character, and by the time Lee is asked to place her elbows on the desk while leaning over, nothing will surprise or shock us. This is a delectable combo of dark comedy and eroticism. Watching her crawl on her hands and knees down the office corridor with typed letter in her mouth is not beyond the realms of our expectations. Who says love has to be soft and gentle? But then, again, perhaps love is soft and gentle in the most surprising of situations.
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CAST: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren, Stephen McHattie
PRODUCER: Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby, Steven Shainberg
DIRECTOR: Steven Shainberg
SCRIPT: Erin Cressida Wilson (story, Mary Gaitskill)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Steven Fierberg
EDITOR: Pam Wise
MUSIC: Angelo Badalamenti
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Amy Danger
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: UIP
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 29, 2003
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
VIDEO RELEASE: November 5, 2003