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Overall Rating

Awesome: 36.19%
Worth A Look43.81%
Average: 7.62%
Pretty Bad: 7.62%
Total Crap: 4.76%

7 reviews, 63 user ratings

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by Mark Rodger-Snelson

"A breath of fresh air into the very stale genre of romantic comedies."
4 stars

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.

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originally posted: 10/31/04 15:22:35
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2002 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2002 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/25/18 Steve Great movie, clueless critic 5 stars
4/23/17 steve weirdly likable, but only occasionally sexy 4 stars
1/12/14 Monday Morning Why haven't I heard about this film before now? Somebody's gonna get spanked! 4 stars
2/13/09 Monique This film is on my top ten list Spader and Gyllenhaal are great! 5 stars
9/21/08 Annie G I would hesitate to recommend to anyone not open-minded, but we enjoyed it. 4 stars
7/29/08 Paula Love this film. Spader and Gyllenhaal are fabulous. 5 stars
6/09/08 ardis Isolation, terminal vulnerability, and the terror of it--in pursuit of passion & intimacy. 5 stars
3/05/08 ladavies Naughty film, felt like locking the door, enjoyed it! 4 stars
8/05/07 ravenmad l love this movie: dark, campy, lottsa layers and fun! 5 stars
3/26/07 Dark Enchantress loved this movie! RAWR! 5 stars
3/18/07 Lynn James Spader can spank my ass ANYTIME!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
1/14/07 Jim Spader proves he can make any character sympathetic; Gyllenhaal is amazing 4 stars
5/31/06 barbara cowell A movie that was so true in its depiction of Lee's problem that it hurt. 5 stars
5/04/06 laura I I loved it...doesn't represent S&M as much as remind viewers of the redeeming power of love 5 stars
12/19/05 tatum Too wrapped up in its own self importance 1 stars
10/30/05 Shenny S. Great untraditional love story! 5 stars
7/04/05 Elena Vardon this movie was startlingly deep 5 stars
5/28/05 Gary Terrible script... from commentary, director too into himself, doesn't know what's importan 1 stars
1/17/05 Jeff Anderson WOW! This is one awesome film about S&M love. J.S. and M.G. are both simply astonishing. 5 stars
9/22/04 Benjamin Spicher Romantic, sexy, great! 5 stars
8/28/04 Chris Smith I loved it <g> - I don't think it was so much about sex but two kin souls no matter how far 5 stars
6/29/04 jcjs funny, clever, sexy, outrageous, thoughful, insightful, acrhetyical jazz 5 stars
6/02/04 Aqua Boogie I think Secretary is in the top 10 list of the best movies ever made. I loved it!!!!! 5 stars
5/15/04 The More You Know Takes some time to get warmed up to the idea, but then the action gets hot, in a weird way. 4 stars
5/11/04 J.Peckerfoot Didn't expect to enjoy this and i should be spanked for it.Great stuff. 5 stars
4/11/04 British Lover Engaging, quirky, Spader was electric! ;) 5 stars
3/23/04 The Talking Elbow Most fucked up love movie i've ever seen, and yet it was sweet and romantic at the end. 5 stars
3/15/04 Ingo Subtle and caring, with lovable characters - a gem. 5 stars
1/01/04 Phil M. Aficionado Even Gyllenhaal's great job is unable to rescue this from irrelevancy and silliness. Yuk. 2 stars
12/19/03 the Grinch Vunderbar. Gyllenhaal is great, Spader is in Nick Cage-Vampire's Kiss form 4 stars
12/12/03 Will It was touching 5 stars
11/14/03 Caiphn Terrible. Ridiculous writing and unintentionally funny. 1 stars
10/17/03 Jinnvisible Charming film could be tittled `The Tao of Bondage`...............................some`Awe 5 stars
10/15/03 matt Beautifully twisted love story that has the courage of its convictions. Just great. 5 stars
10/06/03 sneaker Hey, the first s/m romantic comedy... 4 stars
8/20/03 Graham So because someone's into S&M, they're akin to the Unabomber? Nice. 5 stars
6/21/03 Matt Parsons Dark, Weird, funny and sexy... Nice :-) 5 stars
6/14/03 Colin Selby WELL THE POSTER WAS OK. 2 stars
6/10/03 Jimmy Interesting premise completely falls apart 1 stars
6/09/03 Jack Sommersby A true original. Spader and Gyllenhaal are outstanding. 4 stars
6/03/03 John Bale Bonfire of the Sanities. Brilliant acting saves dark erotic sexcapade of nutbags 4 stars
5/23/03 kelli sexy as hell. a little campy, but delightfully twisted 5 stars
5/19/03 Andrew Carden Solid Debut For Gyllenhall, but Mediocre & Overdone Film. 3 stars
5/11/03 Danny Left me wowed after watching... 4 stars
4/14/03 Mark A- 4 stars
4/04/03 Ray True love.........yes.....True love 5 stars
3/31/03 Dan Navarro The most original movie of the year 5 stars
2/17/03 Roy Gyllenhaal = Goddess! 5 stars
12/25/02 davebo spank me silly, i loved this movie! 5 stars
12/02/02 marzio Nice movie, clever director, black humour, great James Spader 4 stars
11/19/02 poetchuck Spader = Strange 3 stars
11/09/02 AdieAngel One of the best love stories I've ever seen. 5 stars
11/06/02 kiarna fairy tale love story that keeps true to its own dark heart 5 stars
10/22/02 RedWitch A wonderfully positive look at D/s and how two individuals grow and find strength from each 5 stars
10/15/02 Frankie Gaard Sublime and still hot 5 stars
10/10/02 Lioness This movie FINALY showed a more real to life D/s relationship-the subtle looks, the voice 5 stars
10/09/02 ira great movie, loved it 5 stars
9/25/02 Triv James Spader is AWSOME 4 stars
9/20/02 Lithepanther Bizarre yet conventional. :Honest yet idealistic. 4 stars
9/20/02 Pan Onca Loved it... At last, a movie that doesn't trash BDSM. Good ofr nillas and fun for kinkfolk 5 stars
9/10/02 Leslie Marks Loved it - original, funny and best of all not judgmental 5 stars
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  20-Sep-2002 (R)



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