Corrective fluid not required for this provocative yet enlightening observation on unorthodox relationships.

Released in 2002, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 08 Jun 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Where does the boundary lie between sexual harassment and sexual gratification? When is a woman in control of her sexual desire and when does the line between a man's involvement and exploitation blur? Oooh, that's a toughie. These are some of the things Steven Shainberg examines in his feature Secretary, a daring walk on the wild side of sexual desire in the workplace and the ethics of kinky sex.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is Lee Holloway, a young woman recently released from a psychiatric unit where she has been receiving treatment for self-mutilation. Severely effected by the drink-fuelled unhappy dynamic between her mother and father, Lee finds solace in pain; cutting and burning herself are a way of releasing her feelings. Returning home in time for her sister's marriage, Lee decides to seek employment for the very first time. Her only qualifications are from secretarial school, and so this is the profession she chooses.

She finds employment with E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a lawyer with a wife seeking divorce, a string of fired para-legals and some unusual methods of operation. An oppressive figure, Grey is the kind of guy who doesn't suffer fools or mistakes, especially typos. His harshness at work startles Lee, but she soon learns to respect his attitude, and initially thrives under the pressure. It's when things start getting a little hectic and her parents' home life begins to boil over again that Lee lapses once more into a cycle of self hatred and physical abuse. Spotting her in the act of mutilation, Grey has a moment of self reflection and we witness a chink in his armour.

His immaculate and oppressive facade drops momentarily in a moment of genuinely touching care where he confronts Lee about her problems and tells her that she will no longer hurt herself in such a fashion. Empowered by her employers words (and a nice hot mug of cocoa), Lee begins to approach life in a new way and seems to find fresh inspiration; as she says herself she no longer feels alone, as Grey's words give her a feeling that he is with her in spirit if not in person. Things in her personal life could, however, be a lot better.

An old friend from school, Peter (Jeremy Davies), has since become her boyfriend, but his ideas of a relationship are not what Lee expects. Peter makes it clear from the outset he wants a wife and a family, and a visit to his parents makes Lee realise he intends to obtain them sooner rather than later. Although Peter obviously cares for her, Lee finds no comfort or satisfaction in their relationship either physically or mentally. In the wake of realisation that Grey and not Peter holds the true key to her heart, things at work start taking a decidedly kinky turn...

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The desire Grey and Lee harbour for each other has been vaguely apparent from the onset of her employment, but the second and third acts sees this desire reach new heights as the pair find empowerment in borderline S&M. Initial fears that Grey's actions may be exploitative are laid to rest by Lee's subsequent empowerment and the realisation that it is ultimately she who is in charge. Grey becomes the sad figure as his inadequacy in his private life is juxtaposed with Lee's elevation from her own, and an initially horrific character soon becomes a figure of pity.

Finding relief in the unique relationship they share, both parties begin to reach a new understanding of their lives, but unfortunately Grey is unable to cope with such a change. His secret idolisation of Lee manifests as panic just as they begin to reach happiness, and he subsequently reverts to old type, firing a distressed Lee in the process. Unwilling to give up on him, Lee struggles to regain Grey's confidence and bring him out of his reclusive shell, all the time flying in the face of convention and Peter's family's wishes.

Secretary is an original and daring film, of that there is no doubt. It explores uneasy areas of the human psyche with a surprising level of both honesty and tact. Shainberg is clearly aware that Grey's actions in particular might be interpreted as exploitative and degrading, but then anyone observing them as such is plainly missing the fact that it's Lee who is in control. To his credit, he doesn't pander to anybody's lack of intelligence by signposting Grey's weakness, rather he leaves it up to the audience to make up their own mind.

As is always the case with material this sensitive, a hell of a lot rests on the portrayal of character supplied by the actors, and thankfully everybody here does a sterling job. Gyllenhaal and Spader give grade A performances with nary a lapse to be seen, whilst the supporting cast are all immaculate. Davies does his usual "spaced out" schtick, but here it seems particularly fitting and provides a little humour every now and again when the audience needs a break from the heavy thinking. It's clearly the two leads who make this a success, however, and neither has really done a better job, which is especially impressive for a man with a career as long and diverse as Spader.

Gyllenhaal treats her role with the utter respect it deserves, and Spader paints a painfully good picture of a man who shields his weakness through projecting anger. Together they work wonderfully, portraying their unorthodox relationship with kink and debauchery at all times and a surprising warmth and tenderness where necessary. Thanks to their commitment, Shainberg successfully pulls of his daring premise of couples finding happiness through mutually consenting to abuse with aplomb, and all credit to him for having the balls to try.

Secretary is a true original; unique, provocative, thoughtful and entertaining. It's not going to be everybody's cup of tea, primarily because it's so off-kilter but also because it's slow pace and lack of slapstick humour are hardly conducive to box office success. Anyone with an open mind is going to find a lot here to enjoy, however, and if like me you're growing increasingly tired of mainstream pap like our current favourite sitting duck Dreamcatcher, this may well be exactly the tonic you're after. Go on, be a little kinky...

Craig Disko has awarded Secretary 4 out of 5 Disko Whipping Units.

Steven Shainberg
Cast list:
James Spader (E. Edward Grey)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (Lee Holloway)
Jeremy Davies (Peter)
Lesley Ann Warren (Joan Holloway)
Stephen McHattie (Burt Holloway)