Director: Steven Shainberg
Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson (screenplay) / Mary Gaitskill (short story)
Release Date: 20th September 2002 (USA) / 16th May 2003 (UK)
Maggie Gyllenhaal - Lee Holloway
James Spader - E Edward Grey
Jeremy Davies - Peter
Lesley Ann Warren - Joan Holloway
Stephen McHattie - Burt Holloway
Here be spoilers
The movie opens with Lee being released from an institution - the nature of the place and the reason for her being put there are never explicitly stated but it becomes clear very early on that she has had a fairly lengthy history of self harm. At first she finds it hard to come back to everyday life and cope with her alcoholic father, who leaves the family - but she eventually decides to go on a typing course and get a job.
Lee goes for an interview at E Edward Grey's Law firm - he seems to be the sole employee and the interview is very strange (the first question he asks is if Lee is pregnant), but she gets the job and their work relationship begins. Lee is berated by her boss occasionally for making typing errors and when she receives a phone call from her father at work, the emotional stress causes her to break out her old sewing kit and cut herself - unbeknownst to her, her employer is watching (he has also noticed marks on the back of her legs before). The day after noticing Lee out on a date with Peter, Mr Grey asks her to come into his office and has a bizarre conversation with her which involves asking her if she got fucked the previous night, telling her that she will never cut herself again and taking a surprise polaroid picture of her.
It's at this point that their relationship starts to become very strange - Lee makes a typing mistake and Mr Grey asks her to come into his office. He tells her to bend over his desk and read the letter out and proceeds to spank her as she does so. She is obviously surprised at first, but grows to like it. Their S&M play becomes more frequent and Lee throws away her sewing kit. While all this is going on, Lee is proposed to by Peter and agrees to marry him.
Mr Grey becomes more and more engrossed in his work and spends less time proof-reading letters and the spankings dry up. Lee starts to make deliberate mistakes but all go unnoticed. Eventually, after Lee makes it completely obvious what she wants and Mr Grey jacks off on her back, Lee is fired from her job. As preparations for the wedding continue, Lee runs to her old office (in her wedding dress) and refuses to leave until Mr Grey takes her back. She sits at his desk with no food for a couple of days and eventually he relents and they live happily ever after. Or something.
The commercial reviews for Secretary have been almost universally great, and it's easy to see why, but I am not so sure I fully agree. There are some brilliant moments (personally, I thought the 'Secretary wanted' sign with little light bulbs around it was complete genius, but I'm a little odd like that), but some parts just seemed completely unnecessary - there are three masturbation scenes, the aforementioned one and two where Lee fingers herself while thinking about Mr Grey. While I suppose they all added something to the story, they did feel like they were simply there to cause some controversy. The same can be said for the gratuitious nudity at the end, which was disappointing given the tasteful way the difficult story had been handled for most of the movie. The moments showing Lee's self harm were also handled pretty well (it is difficult to know how these issues can be handled sensitively, but Secretary does at least not try to wring any comedy moments out of it).
Having noted the flaws with the screenplay, it is fair to say that the acting is superb. Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her first major role (she had some screentime in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation and Donnie Darko, but these were all bit parts), is brilliant and is certainly not afraid to do things on camera that other actresses would not even think about. James Spader also excels himself and we have no difficulty believing that he is getting pleasure from spanking his secretary. The other characters are all peripheral at best, so it seems unfair to say anything about them.
Overall, this movie is definitely worth seeing as long as you have a reasonably open mind (a friend of mine came out and said 'that was pure filth' which while a little off the mark, does say something) - go for the performances if for nothing else.
the sadomasochistic imdb.com