This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout March with the theme of ‘sexuality’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case Steven Shainberg’s S&M-flavoured romance Secretary.
Long before the box office submitted to the inevitable adaptation of E.L James’ mummy porn juggernaut, another, altogether more fascinating Mr Grey indulged in a spot of big screen sadomasochism.
It helps that the Mr Grey of Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002) is played by jittery genius that is James Spader, whose career has been mottled with sexually dysfunctional types, from his impotent voyeur in Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989), to his character’s penchant for amputees in Crash (1996).
His is the perfect casting for the eccentric attorney; an obsessive-compulsive misfit who finds his soul mate in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s equally damaged Lee. Fresh out of a psychiatric hospital following a long period of self-harm, Lee soon returns to her masochistic ways in the miserable company of her hard-drinking father and meek, downtrodden mother. She responds to a job advert for a secretary at Grey’s low-rent office (an oft-sought vacancy, presumably, due to the illuminated sign out front) and the pair slowly attune to each other’s wavelength; which just happens to involve acts of BDSM.
The film’s prologue features Lee in bondage performing menial office tasks, before flashing back six months to her leaving hospital. The sight of Lee stapling paper using her chin and fixing up a cup of coffee with her arms bound to a pole is treated matter-of-factly but nevertheless threatens the prospect of a nudge-nudge sex comedy (the misjudged poster also doesn’t help).
But Shainberg wisely avoids the trap of winking at the audience or going over-the-top thanks to a script that treats its characters with a tenderness and understanding they have been longing for all their lives and finally find with each other.
The Red (actually purple) Riding Hood cloak the wide-eyed Lee wears when she first enters what we assume is the wolf’s lair of Grey’s office is nicely subverted when we see him frantically checking his hair, asking awkward, inappropriate questions of his would-be employee and revealing his carefully manicured orchids; a none-too-subtle symbol of his own fragility.
The film is careful not to rush what is a complex relationship, with their guarded fascination with each other signalled by lascivious glances that suddenly explode into something more extreme as Grey’s dominant demands for perfection from the willfully submissive Lee play out in increasingly intense ways. This extends beyond the office, to the extent whereby he instructs her on how many peas to put on her plate, to the bafflement of her family.
There are other nice touches, particularly between Lee and timid childhood friend Peter (Jeremy Davies) whom she falls into a relationship with to the delight of their parents. Lee’s frustration with the unassuming Peter is palpable, while the look on her face when she spies his picture during a masturbatory fantasy about her boss is priceless.
In a breakout performance, Gyllenhaal takes Lee on an involving journey from a child-like waif controlled by her illness, to someone who knows what – and who – she wants and is more than prepared to do what is necessary to get it.
Spader, who reportedly adopted the same hot/cold demeanour with Gyllenhaal off set as Grey has with Lee, is typically hypnotic; all slow, hushed tones and coiled mannerisms that erupt into moments of sexual expression that appear to surprise and thrill him in equal measure.
A film that doesn’t allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook.
I’ve heard of this, and really should give it a spanking…er, screening. Thanks for the reminder, Mark. 🙂
Ha ha! Yes, this movie is ripe for innuendo! Cheers buddy 🙂
I don’t know why that poster turns me on so much.
On a different note, I think anything NOT named 50 Shades of Grey that deals with this kind of taboo subject matter is welcomed in my world. This film sounds quite fascinating, and I do love me some James Spader. I didn’t know it was Maggie Gyllenhaal playing opposite him, however, and that unfortunately tempers my enthusiasm a bit. But I’m definitely still keen to check this out knowing it’s got a recommendation here.
This was Gyllenhaal’s breakthrough after featuring along Jake in Donnie Darko. She’s great in it too; really sexy. You need to give her a chance mate; she won’t disappoint you! That poster doesn’t do the film any favours really; it makes it out that it’s a sex comedy which it really isn’t.
I’ve always been interested in this but I just hate Spader so much. It gives me pain when the wife watches The Blacklist.
What is it about Spader you hate so much? Not his silky tones surely…?
I’ve heard about this one and I do like Maggie Gyllenhaal but the subject matter isn’t really my thing. I trust that this was way better than Fifty Shades though 😉
Not your thing? Give it a chance Ruth, I think you might be pleasantly surprised.
Nice review mate. I saw this when it came out and I remember thinking highly of it at the time, but in all honesty not all that much has stuck with me. I remember the two main characters, but reviews, articles or even paras I’ve read since about it fail to jog my memory sufficiently about much else and I can’t for the life of me recall the ending! (That said when you mentioned the neon sign I did remember that.) I probably ought to give it another go seeing as it’s so well-regarded…I expect I’d get even more out of it these days too.
Always appreciated Stu. It has been a few years since its release so I can’t blame you for not remembering too much about it. There’s too much to watch these days so I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t get around to seeing it!
I love Secretary! I’m glad you showcased it. It’s such an incredibly touching film and Maggie Gyllenhaal is so perfect in it.
Thank you Brittani! Glad you like this as much as I do. Good old Maggie is a real find here isn’t she. A star-making turn!
YES! THIS is how you make kinky work in a movie without making it trashy. Gyllenhaal is so good here! Love that you highlight this movie 😀
Hey hey! Cheers Andrew. I’d rather watcg this than 50 Shades any day of the week.
Oh man! Great review Mark. I haven’t seen this in a long time! I remember really enjoying it. It was so off the wall and I recall my wife and I thinking this flick was so insanely perverted but so well done. Glad you reviewed this one. Will have to track it down so I can give it a re-watch. Thanks!
Thanks Vic! It had been a while for me also. Still stands up though; a lovely little movie with great performances.
HAHA this film is genius, when I watched it I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Very well directed. Maybe it is time for a re watch. It is sad to see how far James has fallen, although I suppose there comes a time when we all have to make money and think about retirement
I’ll forgive Spader pretty much anything to be honest after the likes of this, Crash and Sex, Lies and Videotape amongst others. Thanks for the feedback!
Great review of a really good movie. Spader and Gyllenhaal work so well in these roles.