Secretary (2002) Directed by Steven Shainberg. With Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies and Lesley Ann Warren.
There is a film about a young woman who goes to work for an enigmatic man called Mr Grey. Mr Grey has a penchant for sadomasochism. No, not that one. This is Secretary, the one that came out eleven-years before E.L James’ much celebrated/maligned novel, 50 Shades of Grey; which itself subsequently became a mainstream film series.
Directed by Steven Shainberg and adapted from a short story, Secretary has a suitably alternative flavour to it. There is something intentionally abstruse about the tone as it playfully flits between dark to darkly comic, prompting a strong sense of curiosity from its audience. It is this precise balance that supplies a good platform for the central performers (Spader and Glyenhall) to build emotional layers for their intriguing characters.
Maggie Gyllenhaal convincingly plays the aching torment of repression. There is something enjoyably offbeat about her as an actress. She has those eyes that know things we don’t. Much like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (there is an air of Lynch to this) , Gyllenhall throws herself completely into the role, daringly playing all of the extremes; masturbation, self-harm, humiliation games. Add to that a quietly intense James Spader as Mr Grey, and so begins an unconventional chemistry that makes Secretary one of the less obvious, but more striking romantic dramas/dare is say “comedies”, to come out in the recent(ish) times.
What I like about the writing and direction is that the film does not judge. The contrary, if anything it depicts the normalcy of ‘everyday’ activity to be the most absurd life choice. Aside from the central plot and dark humour, the film is armed with a subtext promoting the individualism of embracing who you are. It isn’t trying to say that life is all sunshine and roses, but it encourages expression and thought about the complex designs of desire. Depending on your tastes, the final act might stray a little out of bounds (a scenario with a wedding dress and the local press) but it could conversely be the perfect tin lid on the plot. That is the thing about taste. There’s no accounting for it. 3.5/5