Secretary (2002) starring James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren, Stephen McHattie, Patrick Bauchau directed by Steven Shainberg Movie Review

Secretary (2002)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in Secretary (2002)

Spanking Gyllenhaal Delivers Pleasure and Pain

If you think of James Spader movies you may think of such pleasant 80s fluff as "Pretty in Pink", you may even think of those erotic thrillers from the early 90s such as "White Palace" but you may not think of "Secretary" a movie which whilst spanking good fun is most definitely not your normal mainstream fair. You see "Secretary" is about a young woman who has spent time in a mental institution, self harms and embarks on a sadomasochistic relationship with her new boss, most of which is not what you really expect from a movie made for the big screen more like something from the top shelf.

Having been discharged from a mental institution where she stayed due to her self harming tendencies, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal - Riding in Cars with Boys) struggles to control her urges to cut herself whilst living at home with her dysfunctional family. To try and gain control Lee gets herself a job working as a secretary for E. Edward Grey (James Spader - Dream Lover) a lawyer with a rather quirky nature. Whilst their working relationship starts off quite normally with Lee filling her days with typing letters and filing things it moves to a different level when Edward starts to become domineering reprimanding Lee for minor mistakes by spanking her leading them into a strange working relationship of pleasure and pain.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in Secretary (2002)

"Secretary" like so many movies starts at one point then flicks back 6 months to the main character Lee being discharged from a mental institution but before doing so it delivers a glimpse of the sadomasochism in such a manner that it grabs your attention immediately. You want to know how Lee comes to being shackled with her arms suspended sideways whilst leading a sort of normal existence. It's cleverly done which is something you can say about pretty much every aspect of "Secretary" especially as it tackles such subjects as self harm, mental issues and sadomasochism without either making them a joke or revelling in the sexual nature in a perverse porn like manner. It finds that balance so the sadomasochism, the spanking, the saddle scene, yes I did say saddle scene, are all quite amusing yet not comically manufactured, whilst the scenes focussing on self harm are naturally uncomfortable.

But whilst "Secretary" is a clever and witty look at these deviancies it does have one major issue and that it is painfully slow going, thanks to there being no real character development. Yes we witness Lee leaving a mental institution as a shy, timid young woman almost school like in her innocent naivety and as the movie grows her character develops to more of a confident woman but it's not matched when it comes to either the development of E. Edward Grey or her relationship with him. It's almost unbalanced and whilst fascinating to watch Lee become immersed in acts of sadomasochistic pleasure and pain it's just a little slow going.

I'm not sure whether the fault lies with director Steven Shainberg or with the writers because it is very hard to tell. You have such a clever story full of witty moments and clever thought provoking scenes yet it feels like half of it has gone missing. The good news is that the flaw is hidden by some impressive cinematography which has an almost quirkiness about it with the close up of typewriters, spelling mistakes, squashed worms yet then you get the big striking moments such as the first spanking scene, the orchid garden and of course that funny yet eye catching scene involving a desk covered in hay and a horses saddle, I won't say anymore because you need to watch it.

Going back to the deviant, sexual side of "Secretary" you have to say that Shainberg has done a marvellous job of delivering the feelings and emotions without feeling like he's exploiting it. Yes there is nudity, in particular Maggie Gyllenhaal who bares all and there are various masturbation scenes some far more risky than others. But it never once comes across like its titillation or soft porn, rather more of a witty and insightful look at the pleasure and pain that those who are into sadomasochistic acts gain from something which to others is just plain weird.

What makes it all come together is two absolutely sublime performances from both James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Spader an actor who has starred in a variety of movies really shines delivering so much from such an under written character. Just the way he looks, the way he his lip quivers or the slowness yet purposeful movements makes for a character with such an attraction yet also bordering on the creepy. Maggie Gyllenhaal matches Spader scene for scene delivering that naivety of the shy young girl in her first job through to the woman who ends up craving his attention and his particular style of affection. Together they are just amazing and although "Secretary" has solid performances from the likes of Jeremy Davies and Lesley Ann Warren in supporting roles the movie firmly belongs to James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The thing is that whilst there is the deviancy, the spanking, sex and self mutilation "Secretary" is not really what you would call a mainstream sex movie. It is about two people who through the way they interact manage to find some form of normality. Lee learns that through being spanked by Edward she no longer needs to cut herself and Edward who fears his own desires and fetishes would be seen as just wrong finds someone of a like mind to share them with. It's quite clever, even touching without resorting to manufacturing emotion.

What this all boils down to is that "Secretary" is a very good movie which manages to tackle such issues as self harm and sadomasochism without either being too flippant or too dark. It has an issue with being a little unbalanced and slow but that is made up for by some delightful cinematography, witty writing and brilliant performances from both James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal who manage to create characters which draw you into their lives and their unconventional relationship.