Janus Film Review Presents: Secretary (2002)

as reviewed by Tom

Format reviewed: Digital/Lions Gate (2010).

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 One Hour Photo, Mark Romanek’s film from the same year, 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.

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