"A breath of fresh air into the very stale genre of romantic comedies."
Romantic comedies are usually films that I avoid at all costs but 2003 saw the release of two such movies that have won me over. The first was PT Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love and now comes Steven Shainberg’s Secretary. The reason being is that they both have very original storylines, they feature characters that are not necessarily successful, attractive or mentally stable and they do not star Richard Gere or Hugh Grant.During the opening credits of Secretary you know you are not in for a run of the mill romance with the, yet to be introduced, female lead going about regular office duties with her neck and wrists in shackles. The film then flashbacks six months as Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is being released from a psychiatric institution after being admitted for a self mutilation habit. Keen to start over, Lee attends a secretary’s college and tops her class. Soon she has an interview with Edward Grey (James Spader) who is a particularly strange lawyer who bombards Lee with highly inappropriate questions such as ‘Are you pregnant?’ and also puts a strong emphasis on how boring the job is.
Lee lands the job and we begin to learn exactly how peculiar Mr Grey is. His office looks like is straight out of the 60’s with not a computer of fax in sight, wood paneling, retro telephones and manual typewriters. He has an exotic plant display which he delicately tends to with a syringe. It is evident from the start that Lee is intrigued with Edward and wishes to pursue their relationship beyond the workplace even though he is rude, creepy and somewhat compulsive. He also comes across as a domineering type who has problems with expressing his inner feelings. He discovers Lee’s self scarification tendencies and he demands her to stop. This is the first sign that perhaps Mr Grey has feelings for Lee as well.
Edward Grey is a perfectionist and begins picking up on every little typing error that Lee makes. He also becomes overwhelmingly aroused by her submissiveness which results in a serious spanking session which Lee seems surprised at during the first couple of smacks but then finds it to be a sensual release now that she has stopped taking to herself with needles. Lee will do anything for Mr Grey and their bizarre dominant/submissive relationship ends up going further than the office leading to phone calls to Lee at home with orders of what she can and cannot eat during family dinners.
Outside of the office there are other things happening in Lee’s life such as an alcoholic and abusive father; a mother who won’t let go of her and a more conventional love interest, Pete, who is a greasy nobody who wants nothing more than to marry Lee. At this point in time, however, Lee cannot think of anything but Mr Grey as she has fallen deeply in love with him and she tries desperately to break his tough outer shell to find his inner self that he fights so hard not to reveal.
The direction here is brilliant with slow moving camerawork and vividly coloured sets. It is an excellent screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson which has been adapted from a short story by Mary Gaitskill. The pace may be considered a little sluggish at times but I found that this set the mood well. James Spader is perfectly cast and does a great job as the unusual Mr Grey. As far as acting goes though, the film absolutely belongs to Maggie Gyllenhaal as she excels in her role as Lee - a very brave role for her to take on considering some of the film’s content.There are conventional elements to this love story and some surprisingly intimate moments but overall it is a unique and compelling film they may not be to everyone's tastes. Although it is tagged as a comedy, it won’t have you rolling around in fits of laughter as the humour is very subtle, quirky and quite dark. Some people may feel uncomfortable watching Secretary, particularly those who go and see fluffy romance films to escape their own flawed relationships and/or ordinary lives. There are also some quite explicit bondage and masturbation scenes that will offend some viewers. But if you enjoy seeing movies that go against the grain, you should find Secretary to be a much needed breath of fresh air into the very stale genre of romantic comedies.