Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steven Shainberg

Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren, Stephen McHattie

MPAA Rating:  (for strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, and language)

Running Time: 1:44

Release Date: 12/20/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

On one level, I want to recommend Secretary for its sheer audacity alone. On another, I want to dismiss it for its dumbfounding and offensive presentation of women. On yet another, I want to dismiss that previous thought because the film isn’t a big, broad social commentary; it’s an (extremely) offbeat tale of romance between two desperate, lonely, and very, very messed up people. Well, that and two women are primarily responsible for the story (Erin Cressida Wilson for the screenplay and Mary Gaitskill for the short story on which the film is based). Then I begin to think, maybe it is the ultimate damnation of sexual politics in the workplace. Or maybe that’s only the noise in the background that we need to look past to get at the heart of what’s going on inside these people’s heads. And then on another level, with its darkly funny and oftentimes fairy tale-like tone, Secretary is the dismissal of all the cute, production-line, storybook romantic comedies where one actress can be exchanged with another while the story rehashes things we already know about Hollywood’s version of romance. The fact that I actually take the time to think about all of this proves to me that there’s something undeniably unique and worthwhile about this film.

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been released from an institution. She comes home to her sister’s marriage and more family fights, mostly revolving around her alcoholic father. She begins going back to old habits that ultimately got her institutionalized in the first place—cutting, burning, and bringing other forms of pain upon herself. Is it for pleasure or merely for escape? Eventually, she tries to find other activities, and after excelling in a typing class, she gains the nerve to start looking for a job. The opportunity presents itself at a local law firm (the fact that the "Secretary Wanted" sign is a permanent fixture should give us some clue, but it’s not until later that we realize its significance in regards to the owner’s character), where attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) is looking for new help. With her impressive scores, Grey is happy to bring her on board, except with the reservation that she’ll be bored. She wants to be bored, she tells him. Meanwhile she starts seeing Peter (Jeremy Davies), a scruffy, awkward old friend of hers, and the relationship between Lee and Mr. Grey begins to show its true colors.

Mr. Grey is an overbearing perfectionist, showing his control over his secretary with a red pen for highlighting grammatical errors in her typing. Lee responds to it with her sewing kit, full of the means necessary to inflict pain upon herself. Dominant and submissive is the general framework of their relationship. The film focuses on Lee, so we begin to wonder the origin of her behavior. As far as one can gather, it primarily stems from her relationship with her father. Since he’s absent for the majority of the movie, we assume her life with him has been the same. It’s clear particularly in the choice before her. Peter and Mr. Grey represent possible dominant male figures in her life—substitutes for dad. The fact that one seems to have no assertive control over anything and the other asserts a control that eventually leads to a sadomasochistic relationship is certainly representative of the choice laid before Lee. In Mr. Grey, she has found a kindred spirit. He gives her the pain the she desires, which gives her a sense of stability. He, on the other hand, is conflicted with his way of life. Whether or not the activities he and Lee share are a part of his past or newly discovered is unimportant. His desire to hold power over women is the key to his behavior.

The give and take of their relationship is fascinating to watch. Eventually, Mr. Grey's insecurities begin to take hold, and a question arises: Is this part of the game or a legitimate uncertainty about himself? The film keeps the game up. What causes some concern about the relationship is the fact that the woman is the submissive one. That is just a basic part of the relationship, but when she goes on a hunger strike for days because he demands her to stay seated until he comes to get her, the movie begins to get uncomfortable. What ultimately rescues it is the realization that this is Lee’s role in her life—not necessarily an all-encompassing view on women in general. Perhaps this is the key to her becoming stronger than she has been. Director Steven Shainberg wisely keeps the story intensely personal, making sure we never confuse this relationship as a stance on the roles of men and women in society. Also keeping the movie grounded are the main performances. James Spader’s performance relies on the fact that we’ve seen him in similar roles before. It gives this character a history of sorts.  The true revelation, though, is Maggie Gyllenhaal. She has a great sense of comedy and embodies the change of her character through physicality—from shy clomping to confident grace.

If I’ve made the film sound exceedingly serious, I have misled. The film’s humor is really quite invigorating and contradicts everything we’ve come to expect from movies nowadays. Instead of simply handling conventional material in a conventional way, Secretary takes the most unexpected material and handles it in the most unexpected way.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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