Updated: Jan 30, 2022
There is a reason why I despise the Fifty Shades trilogy in all its forms. The success of something as limited, bland and exploitative as the 'Fifty Shades' saga is a joke at the expense of the whole human race, with E.L. James’ bulging bank balance serving as the punchline. It is very easy to loathe the prosperity of the talentless, but my own personal disdain is more acute. This dreadful piece of glorified fan fiction took the tangible, fascinating world of BDSM and fetishism and stripped it of any semblance of truth, leaving it above all else… boring. It is witless titillation for those who want to perceive a thing without troubling themselves to understand it. In such realms of safety and tedium does adventure die a death, and is the reason why a bold and beautiful film such as Secretary (2002) has fallen below many a radar.
Secretary, directed by Steven Shainberg and based on the short story of the same name by American novelist Mary Gaitskill, is above all else, a love story. It is one of the more bizarre and esoteric examples of the form, but beneath its various quirks and foibles dwells a film about two people wanting to fall in love. Where the story succeeds is firstly in focussing on two fundamentally ordinary - if disparate - protagonists, and secondly, in accepting the idiosyncrasies of love and the many forms it can take. In George Orwell’s seminal 'Nineteen-Eighty-Four', Winston Smith ponders the question of whether beauty possesses a single ‘style’, or rather can it be ‘anything’ in seemingly endless shapes and forms. Secretary embraces this contention and journeys to the realm of BDSM, in the form of a dominant/submissive relationship between James Spader’s neurotic lawyer, E. Edward Grey (yes, really), and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s timorous secretary, Lee Holloway.
The film is imbued with an excellent tonal balance, moving gracefully from sweetness to melancholia, before travelling on to jet-black comedy with lashings of sexual tension and exploration, and finally alighting at outright tenderness. Secretary benefits handsomely from writer Erin Cressida Wilson’s taut and supremely witty screenplay, and Shainberg’s absolute commitment to the story. He is keenly aided in this endeavour by the quality of his two leads. James Spader is renowned for his daring, and his ability to breathe life into the most complex and unwieldy of characters. In his capable hands, Edward Grey manages to be both an obsessive/compulsive prick and entirely sympathetic oddball, who just so happens to possess repressed deviant tendencies. He is a bundle of eschewed verve and energy, and you’re never quite sure whether you should pity him, root for him or recommend he be shot. Acting alongside such a powerhouse would be daunting to even the most experienced hand, so the vigour with which the then-freshly gilded Maggie Gyllenhaal undertakes her assignment is positively enthralling.
Gyllenhaal’s character of Lee Holloway is the heart and soul of the story. She is our narrator; the eponymous secretary, and it is her suffering we behold and her redemption we crave. Through the prism of Lee, Shainberg is able to shine an always tasteful light on the malady of self-harm, as well as exploring burgeoning female sensuality, and characteristics of one of the more complex aspects of the sadomasochistic dynamic, that being the role of the submissive. All of this is made possible by Gyllenhaal’s utterly invested performance. She gives of herself completely, in a manner that is physically and emotionally intimate, but never gratuitous. In the space of one film she transforms from callow novice into a genuinely alluring woman, before arriving at a state of bliss: a contented blending of innocence and sexual charisma. She shares the screen with the man who brought visceral form to the cinema of David Cronenberg, and manages to be both utterly composed and completely convincing. It is a bravura performance of such bravery that nothing she has done since even remotely rivals its strength. The chemistry between James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal is absolute and utterly compelling. Together they infuse the film with a force of personality that is wildly hilarious, disarmingly sweet or unnervingly erotic: whatever the story demands.
An understated strength of the film is in its subtle observations concerning the torpor of so-called ‘real life’. Lee’s father, Burt - played with typical professionalism by veteran character actor Stephen McHattie - is a barely functioning alcoholic, and Lee reacts to the external chaos of her familial life by suppressing her internal anguish and dissatisfaction. This leads her to self-harm, and to attempt to pursue a mundane relationship with a stereotypically ‘ordinary’ chap, in the form of Jeremy Davies’ appalling dweeb, Peter. It is only in meeting Edward Grey, and finally finding an outlet for the disquiet that follows her soul, that Lee finds the will to emerge as a person in her own right. The road to this eventual revelation might be highly unconventional, and requires great effort and courage to traverse, but as Lee discovers, it is better to be true to one’s self than to carry on living a lie. Every other character in the film represents some element of societal convention, with the conspicuous - and ironic - exception of Lee’s father, who after achieving sobriety is the only character witnessed during the film’s climax to encourage Lee to do what she wants, rather than what is expected. The subsequent denouement is a sweet, cathartic and rewarding moment; something of a final two-fingered salute to the rules of convention and expectation.
Secretary is an antidote to the conceit that a filmic love story needs to be predictable and/or melodramatic. It is a film bursting with charm and potent in its conviction. If you are prepared to accept the peculiarities of its approach, and its willingness to both discuss and explore the unspoken and unconventional, you will be rewarded with a truly beguiling motion picture. It is consummate in its execution, with a honed and polished script and expressionistic energy, and is carried by two central performances that are as magnificent as they are tenacious. It is one of the most delightful love stories you could ever wish to see. Secretary shines a light on a very human darkness that is ultimately neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, it simply ‘is’, as we discover that happiness can be found in the most unlikely of places, via the most extraordinary of means. Do yourself a favour: Take Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, a desk and a letter with a typo, and you’ll find yourself with a forbidden fruit to rival any dreamt up by a sexually frustrated hack with a 'Twilight' fetish. To paraphrase David Huddleston’s Olsen Johnson in Blazing Saddles (1974): ‘Never mind that shit, go and watch Secretary’.
Secretary is not a love story. It is a darkly comic tale about two troubled souls searching for it in a very unconventional way. It concerns Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an institutionalised young woman with mental health issues, recently returned home and finding a job as a secretary to enigmatic, and slightly creepy lawyer, E. Edward Grey (James Spader). His is an isolated existence, with a recent failed marriage and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Hers is a lonely life, struggling to reacquaint herself with the outside world, prone to self-harm, and dealing with an alcoholic father, an overbearing mother and a rather drippy boyfriend. Following Lee’s willingness to scout through the rubbish to find some lost notes, Grey’s manner becomes more controlling. When she begins making typing errors on documents, it awakes in Grey a desire to chastise his new secretary, and a dominant/submissive relationship between them begins.
Secretary is a challenging film, and how you respond to it very much depends on your perspective on the subject matter. On the one hand, the actions of Grey can be perceived as perverse and manipulative, exploiting the innocence of a vulnerable woman. Conversely, others might contend that it documents a woman’s sexual awakening. Some might argue that the whole situation has an element of Stockholm Syndrome about it, as Lee’s reliance on these intimate moments with her boss and growing psychological connection to him seem to determine her own sense of self-worth. The truth is a little more complex – it is all of these things and more besides. Ultimately, the beginning of their relationship is an awkward confusion of her wanting to be loved and him wanting someone to control. Arguably, this derails the intention of the film quite early on. To its credit, though, Secretary focuses on the characters, rather than gratuitously dwelling on the more contentious aspects of their relationship. In fact, it allows the characters to convey a certain amount of tenderness, in spite of the subject matter. This wouldn’t work if the film didn’t have the right actors.
Spader has made a career out of such off-centre roles, and the character of Grey subverts the usual audience perception of a leading man in a ‘love’ story. However, the film really belongs to Maggie Gyllenhaal, in a fearlessly committed role. She sells lines and scenes that in other hands (and other films) would seem utterly ludicrous. Alongside Steven Shainberg’s assured, precise and tasteful direction of a lean and intelligent screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, the main ingredients in front of and behind the camera work together superbly.
Secretary is not a film for everyone, but one can admire its audacity. It is more than fifty shades subtler than another work of fiction featuring a character called ‘Grey’. Secretary is a film that evokes the feel of Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo (2002), which explores the psyche of Robin Williams’ lonely and voyeuristic camera film developer – a similarly ‘taboo’ subject. Commendably, Secretary doesn’t preach to its audience. It somehow manages to be fairly objective about the practice of BDSM, neither really condoning it nor condemning it. Secretary does seem to confuse love with infatuation, however, and this diminishes the outcome of Lee and Grey’s relationship. Though one might be challenged, and even disapprove, of the way the characters go about their relationship, you are left to decide for yourself whether the characters are truly happy, despite a rather contrived resolution. As Lee’s father comments towards the end of the film: “Who says love has to be soft and gentle?” This film goes some way to exploring an answer. But you might not look at a red marker pen again in quite the same way.