Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader
Directed by: Steven Shainberg
Rated: R for strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, and language.
Parental Notes: “Secretary” is not appropriate for younger teens but may provide an opportunity for parents and older teenagers to discuss alternate lifestyles.
Hollywood regularly cranks out fairytale romances, those bits of fluff that are hopelessly romantic and delightful in spite of their implausibility. “Secretary” is very much a fairytale romance, but one that Hollywood no doubt wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. After all, it’s not a sure bet that a film in which the couple fall in love over a good, hard spanking will be a big crowd pleaser.
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been released from a mental institution. Although outwardly she seems like a normal, if rather withdrawn, young woman, her penchant for self-mutilation and thoroughly dysfunctional family suggest that there is something seriously missing from her life: emotional connection. Even Peter (Jeremy Davies), the boy she knew in high school and is dating again doesn’t really understand her.
When she gets a job as a secretary for demanding lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader), Lee is thrilled. He’s a little odd – he obsessively cultivates orchids and hides in the closet when his furious ex-wife storms into the building – but Lee likes him. He likes her too, and before long their relationship crosses into areas that would, as the film’s website says, give any human resource director the vapours. Spankings, red Sharpies, and late night phone calls are only the beginning.
Naturally, the course of true love never did run smooth, and Lee and Edward’s relationship is no exception. While their love frees Lee from her need to express her inner anguish through mutilating herself, Edward is horrified by his darker impulses and pushes Lee away. Unsatisfied by Peter’s hesitant adoration, Lee decides to stand up to Edward for what she wants, turning the idea of the downtrodden submissive female on its head.
That the film is a fairytale romance is evident almost immediately. The colorful settings and almost surreal furnishings of Lee’s room and Edward’s offices are just the other side of possible. Edward’s alternation between an almost clairvoyant understanding of Lee and a complete inability to see what she obviously wants makes for a romantic story but is thoroughly implausible. However, once we viewers realize this is not a gritty realistic film and just sit back to enjoy it, it’s a charming movie.
“Secretary” is not a film for those without both a rather dark sense of humor and a very open mind. Those who can appreciate it, however, will be delighted by Spader and Gyllenhaal’s glittering performances in their complex roles. Gyllenhaal does a wonderful job with the transition Lee makes from frightened rabbit to self-confident masochist, showing the strength Lee derives from her relationship with her boss. Likewise, Spader gives us glimpses into the conflict Edward feels between his desires and the social norms he wants to live up to.
The pacing of the film and the changes in its characters are at times uneven. One gets the feeling that there are scenes left on the cutting room floor that would help make the film flow more smoothly. Edward’s control of Lee, at its height, includes his dictating what she may and may not eat at dinner with her parents, but we never see any further examples. Lee’s style of dress changes radically, as do her makeup and movements, but we never see how or why. Likewise, Edward’s relationship with his ex-wife is never completely explained or explored. At an hour and forty-four minutes, “Secretary” is not overly long, and it would have benefited from an extra ten minutes or so.
That aside, however, “Secretary” is a sly film that winks at the fairytale romantic comedies Hollywood tends to put out and isn’t afraid to be what it is: a Cinderella story with an unusual couple at its very tender heart.