Stars: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren, Stephen McHattie
Director: Steven Shainberg
Screenwriter: Erin Cressida Wilson from Mary Gaitskill’s short story “Secretary,” from the collection “Bad Behavior”
Clearly a movie not for everybody, Secretary delves into the bizarre world of dominant/submissive sexuality types. It’s an oddly compelling tale, written with great sensitivity and gentle humor, about an emotionally distraught young woman’s experiences in a new job as a secretary to a lawyer who’s as strange as she is.
Just released from a mental institution, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) returns home to an overprotective mother (Lesley Ann Warren), and an abusive drunk of a father (Stephen McHattie). As a means for attention and to gain some control over her stressed life, Lee resorts to ritualistic cutting of certain parts of her body, in this case her upper legs which she keeps well hidden behind dowdy skirts and dresses. She’s as much a physical wreck as she is an emotional one.
In an effort to get out into the world as a normal person, Lee takes a typing class then goes hunting for her very first job. She’s hired on the spot by small time lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a fastidious fuss-budget who grows orchids in his office.
The job seems normal at first. She makes the coffee, files and types and although she had the highest typing scores he’s ever seen, Lee’s prone to making typos on a routine basis. When Edward can’t stand it anymore he bends her over the side of his desk and gives her a whack (as in – smack on the butt), or two, or three. At first it’s painful for her, then she’s aroused and finally, she comes to rely on it. It means he’s paying attention. The butt whacks escalate to more fanciful and degrading representations of the culture. The arrangement appears to be a satisfying one for both until Lee tries to get extend the bounds emotionally by actively seeking out his attention.
But this is way beyond Edward’s ability to cope. Lee is finally left with a difficult decision: to leave as so ordered and lose him forever or to resort to a measure so extreme that it would prove her undying love.
Lotta says: Women will find lots to cringe at while watching Lee’s humiliation at Edward’s manipulative hand but don’t lose sight of the deeper message here. You’ll see that both characters are getting precisely what they desire and actually need to thrive as individuals. I found the actors commitment to their roles to be brave and their portrayals enterprising. The film is beautifully written and sensitively directed. Rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, and language.
Reviewed April 2003