Saturday 5 November 2022

Movie Review: Secretary (2002)

A kinky romance with traces of humour, Secretary plays a love variation on peculiar keys.

In a nondescript Florida suburb, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is released from an institution after treatment for a self-harm incident. She still has strong urges to cut herself, but goes to secretarial school and achieves good scores. Much to the delight of her mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren), Lee lands a job as a secretary for lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader), who works out of a house lavishly converted into a boutique office. Lee also maintains a tepid friendship with the willing Peter (Jeremy Davies).

Edward wants his correspondence prepared on typewriters rather than computers, and warns Lee the job will be boring. He also has awkward idiosyncratic tendencies and a halting verbal communication style. He discovers Lee's self-harm urges, and counters them by spanking her when she commits work errors. The slappings trigger Lee's sexual awakening and embrace of submissiveness, but what promises to be an enjoyable sadomasochistic romance stumbles on Edward's mounting embarrassment.

An adaptation and extrapolation of a Mary Gaitskill story written for the screen by Erin Cressida Wilson, Secretary is a romance on the edge. Director Steven Shainberg allows a unique vibe to permeate through the slowly developing attraction between the strange lawyer and recovering secretary, and they meet in the middle where he bends her over on his desk - presumably to get a close-up view of her typing mistakes - and she discovers joy in pain inflicted by others.

Both Lee and Edward are wired a bit differently, and the movie rejoices in two troubled adults finding a release outlet. The science is dubious around submission curing her propensity for self-harm, and Edward's psychological complexities are never even afforded a label. But Shainberg succeeds at the difficult task of cheering on two kooky protagonists as they push unlikely buttons to achieve a quirky brand of happiness.

The visuals are as offbeat as the characters. With the outdoors a suburban wasteland of nothingness, most of the drama unfurls within Edward's office, and production designer Amy Danger conjures up a stunning setting. Filled with organic browns and greens interrupted by imposing hallways and doors, the office exudes wild fertility, and provides a perfect environment for a budding romance and a shelter for sexual exploration. Angelo Badalamenti's soft but sensual score captures sly dynamics.

In a breakthrough role, Maggie Gyllenhaal dominates the core of the movie with a captivating performance, finding the intersection of insecurity and curiosity. James Spader creates an impenetrable counterpoint, his psychological complexities just as deep but less superficially obvious. 

Secretary finds love within troubled psyches, the someone-for-everyone expression of control and devotion landing with a smack.

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