Lions Gate/Universal .
R4 . COLOR . 106 mins .
MA15+ . PAL
"Damn, that cardboard cutout of Mr Grey is creeping me out..."
It’s one of the oldest plot devices in the Hollywood book - a man and a woman, both of whom feel out of place in their day-to-day lives and emotionally alienated from the people around them, discover each other and make a unique connection that brings them inexorably together. It’s the stuff of countless romance flicks, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Pretty in Pink. When an independent filmmaker decides to have a try at a love story, though, it’s a fairly safe bet that the standard Hollywood conventions aren’t going to be followed. Secretary is one such film - at its core, it’s a warm and light-hearted love story with deft comedic touches. But the couple that’s the focus of this romance aren’t anything close to being your standard cinematic pairing, and it’s clear right from the outset that we’re going to be seeing a film that’s most assuredly only for the open-minded.
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a troubled woman. She’s just been discharged from a psychiatric hospital where she was undergoing treatment for a difficult problem; she compulsively cuts herself in an attempt to deal with her inner pain. Her mother goes into over-protective mode, prompting Lee to look for a job in an effort to find some kind of normality in her life. The job that she finds, though, is anything but normal. Answering an ad for the position of secretary at a law practice, she meets E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a tense and eccentric lawyer who seems to have made belittling his staff into an art form. Yet the mouse-quiet Lee isn’t overly troubled - she wants the job badly, and gets it. Soon, though, she discovers that Mr Grey’s dominant personality is no accident; his verbal and psychological abuse turns physical when he takes it upon himself to soundly spank Lee for what, to him, is the unforgivable sin of making some typos, which he routinely and angrily circles with a big red pen (of which he keeps a sizeable collection). Lee is anything but upset by this behaviour, though; she’s already figured out that the roles the two are playing are very much consensual. Mr Grey is into domination and sadism; Lee is submissive and masochistic. Together they make the perfect S&M couple.
"And next, we'll do the ears..."
It may all sound so terribly politically incorrect to the more tremulous members of this film’s audience, but this very original and warm-hearted story of two people finding their true selves and their ideal partners is far from the exploitative fare some might think. Director Steven Shainberg and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson have a point to make here - namely, that love between two people is unique and completely valid and genuine, no matter how they prefer to express it. Movies usually deal with S&M as a freakish disorder or fetish, but in Secretary these two simply are who they are, however unusual that may be to those who don’t subscribe to the master-and-servant way of doing things. Shainberg doesn’t approach the story from an exploitative point of view in the slightest - quite the opposite, in fact. Never has such an unconventional screen couple seemed so thoroughly normal (!); there’s humour aplenty here, but Shainberg and Wilson are never ridiculing their characters.
James Spader is in top form here as Mr Grey, and the supporting cast is uniformly terrific. But the real star here is Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose performance is nothing short of stunning; she’s one of the most expressive, insightful actors currently working, and brings Lee to life with such total commitment and skill that we’re completely attuned to the character’s way of thinking mere minutes into the film. It’s a crucial leap that the audience has to make, and Gyllenhaal ensures it’s effortless.
Visually the film’s a treat, too. Shainberg’s an experienced cinematographer, and manning the camera himself he makes the world of Secretary a visually evocative one. From top to bottom the film glows with cleverness and confidence, always warm-hearted and never underestimating the intelligence of its audience for a second. In mainstream hands this same story would likely have been a trashy disaster, but in Shainberg’s hands, everything about Secretary is spot-on. Just be sure to watch it with an open mind.
"I'm Sophie Ellis-Bextor... err, I mean, I'm your secretary!"
Universal up the ante slightly on the US DVD version of the film, which crammed the movie and extras onto a single-layered disc. Here, they have opted for the dual-layer approach, giving the movie plenty of room to breathe with a solidly high encoding bitrate throughout and using a full 2GB more disc space than its US counterpart. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image looks absolutely lovely for the majority of the film, with frequent vibrant colours reproduced with neon precision and the warm lighting of Mr Grey’s office providing an evocative setting for much of the story. The film source used is near-flawless, with only a few scenes where film grain becomes a little too overbearing and a couple of brief shots where minor film damage is visible. But taken as a whole, this is a very pleasing transfer indeed - more so for the fact that the transfer would have been done on an indie-level budget.
Note that although the movie itself is 16:9 enhanced, everything else on the disc - including the menus - is not.
The layer change is quite arbitrarily placed, and is slightly disruptive on players that pause to think before switching layers. Placement just a few seconds earlier would have fixed this problem.
The film was equipped with a two-channel soundtrack in cinemas, and that’s what it gets on DVD as well. It’s listed in the disc menu as “stereo” and is not flagged for Dolby Surround, and perhaps the “stereo” designation was deliberate; there’s really nothing much going on in the surrounds for this film, nor does there need to be; it’s almost entirely dialogue-driven, with Angelo Twin Peaks Badalamenti’s terrific music score bleeding into the rear speakers in much the same accidental way that most audio CDs do if you accidentally play them in surround. This one’s probably best left as a straight two-channel mix, and with crisp dialogue and excellent music fidelity, it does its job fine.
"This one time, when I had the Invisible Woman for a secretary..."
There’s only a handful of extras provided on the disc, and they’re exactly the same as those offered on the US Lion’s Gate release (indeed, the main menu still bears the Lion’s Gate logo!). First up is a good audio commentary from Shainberg and Wilson; while it does tend to fall into the trap of using filmmaker lingo a bit too often when what’s being referred to is obvious (“and now we got to a two-shot…”) there’s some interesting info here (a pity, though, that the movie soundtrack is not included in the background - the commentary often makes reference to dialogue that we can’t actually hear). The seven-minute featuretteBehind the Secretary (geddit?) is better than the average EPK rubbish, and in fact would have been far more interesting had it been fleshed out into a longer documentary; some viewers may be fascinated to see just how different Maggie Gyllenhaal is when she’s just being Maggie Gyllenhaal…! Aside from these two offerings, there’s only a two-minute widescreen trailer and a brief photo gallery that at least offers its images the way they always should be - using the entire available screen space.
One other set of extras you won’t want is the crap that’s foisted upon the viewer when you put the disc in the player. After the non-skippable 30-second Universal fanfare and copyright warning, you’re treated to two non-skippable trailers for other releases (Grownups and Roger Dodger) before you can get to the main menu. All buttons except “stop” and “fast-forward” have been disabled, so you have two options - fast-search until you get to the menu, or press “stop” and then the menu button to go direct to the main menu (pressing “play” after stopping will give you the Secretary trailer, not the film). This obnoxious authoring is common to Universal rental discs, but as Secretary is also being sold at retail, the least they could have done is remove the user operation prohibitions. We’re not impressed.
The subject matter may seem confronting, but rather than taking a position for or against the concept of sadomasochism, Secretary simply accepts it as a facet of its characters, and then weaves a surprisingly tender love story around it all. Winningly funny and intelligent, it’s that rarest of things - an original idea - brought to life by intelligent writing, brilliant direction and, in Maggie Gyllenhaal, one of the most eye-opening lead performances in a very long time. Highly recommended.
"That rarest of things - an original idea - brought to life by intelligent writing, brilliant direction and, in Maggie Gyllenhaal, one of the most eye-opening lead performances in a very long time." - Anthony Horan