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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 Joe Cooper

"For those that enjoy a lot of slap with their tickle!"
3 stars

In much the same way as Queer As Folk pushes the barrow for the gay and lesbian crowd, Secretary takes leaps and bounds towards bringing legitimacy and empathy to another lifestyle choice. For aficionados of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM to those in the know), Steven Shainberg’s quirky film will no doubt become a visual anthem.

Introverted Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) pursues the dark hobby of self-mutilation. To be specific, she finds cathartic release in cutting or burning herself. Such is Lee’s interest in her solo sport, she’s built a special kit of sharp and pointy tools. Covered in pretty butterfly stickers, her box of tricks travels everywhere with her. However, Lee has been known to branch out and incorporate common kitchen items into her painful routine. It was courtesy of one such dalliance with the kitchen drawer that she found herself packed off to a psychiatric hospital for a nice rest.

Secretary kicks off with the timid Lee being released from the hospital and back into the clutches of her dysfunctional life. In a desperate bid to avoid the patterns of unhappiness that have dominated her past, Lee takes her mother’s advice and enrols in secretarial school, and, upon completion, begins searching for a job. It’s at her first interview that she meets the mysterious E. Edward Grey (James Spader).

Mr Grey is a highly eccentric lawyer, with his own secret pastimes. As well as having an obsession with red marking pens, Edward has a severe secretary fetish and a heavy need for kink. After a brief interview, Edward hires Lee to ostensibly take care of his typing, filing, and coffee making. However, when his barely restrained desires get the better of him, the two oddbods are off and running in an office relationship like no other. Spanking, saddlewear, and sexual mind games meld with typing and photocopying as the pair skitter down an unusual path towards love.

Steven Shainberg (Hit Me, Prom) is well on the road to making a name for himself as a director and screenwriter, but still has some way to travel. Whilst he succeeds in deftly turning serious issues (self-mutilation and workplace sexual harassment to name just two) into an original and entertaining comic drama, he does seem to have fallen short in the area of character development. Additional screen time invested in fleshing out the main characters’ backgrounds, especially Mr Grey’s, would have contributed greatly to the story, without necessarily upsetting the film’s deliberate attempt to deliver heavy topics in a light and quirky manner.

Secretary hales the return of James Spader to the kind of creepy, yet fascinating, role that made him famous in the 1980s. Yes, he did his time as a pretty boy with likes of Rob Lowe (Bad Influence) and Andrew McCarthy (Less Than Zero), but it was as the rampant sexual voyeur, Grahame, in Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989) that he made his name. In Secretary, Spader takes a similar role to incredible new heights, proving that his thirteen year hiatus wasn’t detrimental, and that he’s still the grandmaster when it comes to playing sexual deviants. Perhaps he’ll be typecasted and will build a glistening new phase to his career, ala Christopher Walken.

Also performing admirably as a sexual deviant is relative newcomer Maggie Gyllenhaal. While it helps that she’s an unfamiliar face, and therefore not associated with past goody-two-shoes roles, the lion’s share of the credit for the success of Lee as a character must go to Gyllenhaal’s talent. As the multifaceted, masochistic Lee, the 25 year old former waitress (aren’t they all?) delivers and succeeds in holding the audience’s attention, whether she's making coffee with her mouth, narrating, or toying with a pointy thing.

With the shining exception of the two leads, the acting in Secretary leaves a lot to be desired. Standing out are wooden performances by Jeremy Davies and Stephen McHattie. As Lee’s boyfriend and alcoholic father respectively, they generally wander and fail to contribute to the movie’s progression. In the case of Davies, his performance is somewhat a re-enactment of his irritating role as the nerdy translator in Saving Private Ryan.

Sometimes hilarious, sometimes thought provoking, Secretary is always risqué. For those who have a dungeon in their home and a subscription to Spank, this film is incentive enough to commandeer a cab and proceed with all haste to the cinema. For the rest, it may be a case of waiting for this strange love story to hit the shelves down at Blockbuster.

Four stars for the kinksters. Three for everyone else. Overall, three and half stars. If you'll excuse me, I have another taxi to hijack.

link directly to this review at
originally posted: 05/16/03 11:07:30
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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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