Blu-ray Review: Secretary (2002)

Now Available to Own

Obviously I looked forward to the opportunity of putting one of the decade's most controversial romantic cult classics under the microscope in high definition with Lionsgate's recent influx of offbeat Blu-ray releases. Yet in addition to a stellar visual and audio transfer, the studio further impressed this reviewer by altering the cover art to encourage wary audience members to give Steven Shainberg's Secretary a chance similar to the way an employer will hire a new worker on a trial basis.

This indeed was a very welcome change from the grotesquely bizarre and salacious marketing campaign launched for its theatrical run back in 2002, which included a vulgar woman-as-object poster that painted Shainberg's Secretary as a Las Vegas adults-only kinks on parade novelty work that hindered rather than helped it catch onto a wider art house audience. In fact on Jon Favreau's IFC original series Dinner for Five, the disappointed lead actress Maggie Gyllenhaal expressed her distaste for the campaign and acknowledged that she never even modeled for the box and/or poster used.

For even though the film is the opposite of deceptive as it foreshadows the dominant/submissive unlikely genre love story to come in an opening sequence that borders on camp, Shainberg's movie downright surprises you by its thoughtful compassion as it ventures back in time.

Catching us up on the events leading to the coming-of-age transformation of our protagonist, we first meet the sweet, na├»ve but troubled Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is released from a mental hospital for her self-mutilation tendencies and thrust back into “normalcy” by partaking in her sister's backyard wedding.

Contradictory to the way she's prone to sublimating emotional pain for the real pain of cutting herself, Lee mostly leads her life as an overgrown girl who floats in a pool with swimmies and surrounds herself with butterflies and the like, while trying to find a sense of familiarity by dating a gentle, troubled soul (Jeremy Davies) whom she knew in high school.

Hoping to break out of her shell even more or perhaps more accurately just attempting to reinforce her desired image of normalcy, Lee earns a typing certificate, soon landing her first ever job for attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) -- a slightly off, soft voiced control freak who treats his red correcting pens with a fetishistic glee.

In a bonus Blu-ray featurette, Gyllenhaal describes her relationship with Spader by informing us that she was able to “hook into” her scene partner early on in the process by matching one another's energy with gusto. And from the first moment Lee wanders through Mr. Grey's curious looking building past a tearful woman and a front office that resembles the aftermath of a hurricane to converse with Grey himself, the two seem to recognize something unspoken about one another, “hooking in” with near-magnetic force. Simply put, there's no faking chemistry and these two have it in spades.

Yet because it is Lee's story first and foremost, we're left to deduce what exactly is going on with Mr. Grey right along with our heroine during the young woman's first week on the job as he tests her mettle. And whether it's having her set mouse traps or go dumpster diving for documents, from the very start, he goes to great lengths to see how far he can push Lee but his tendency to overreact at typos signals the return of his trusty red pens as well as a startling revelation.

However, once he uncovers Lee's secret life by interrupting her as she opens her sewing kit on the desk, their dynamic changes. From making her see that she doesn't need to engage in those rituals, Grey himself soon becomes her new escape.

Taking the drudgery out of office life, the two explore the S&M roles they've taken great pains to hide, which soon blossoms into a disturbing yet genuine love story.

Admirably avoiding the easy way out of the taboo by making the man the submissive and the woman the dominant, somehow Secretary still ensures that the female character is treated with dignity. In fact, when it comes to Gyllenhaal's Lee, we realize that she is in even more control of the situation and her sexuality than her male counterpart Grey.

Although the work, which was adapted from Mary Gaitskill's short story Bad Behavior by talented scribe Erin Cressida Wilson along with filmmaker Steven Shainberg, loses some credibility in a slightly hokey “sit in” witnessed in the third act, the admittedly risky celebration of using sexuality to liberate and discover yourself is handled with the utmost of taste.

Likewise, regardless of the issue that Shainberg's movie embraces far more dry wit and even camp, thematically Secretary is fairly reminiscent of The Piano and the two movies together would make fascinating scholarly fodder for a feminist centric film analysis project.

And it's anchored by an alternately helplessly sweet and fearlessly confrontational portrayal by the gifted Gyllenhaal that more than makes us forget that (much like Michael Douglas) perhaps Spader has played the sexual deviant smug yuppie creep role one time too many.

Ultimately, Secretary which works even better on a second or third viewing, scores a well-deserved promotion in this stellar Blu-ray.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.