Secretary (2002) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

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



About garethrhodes

Full-time lover of all things creative.
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10 Responses to Secretary (2002) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

  1. Marta says:

    I liked this one especially for the chemistry between Spader and Gyllenhaal, they make the story very sweet and relatable even if it’s a little quirky 🙂

  2. Dude the cleaner says:

    I love this film. I saw it some 10 years ago I didn’t know it existed until a friend of mine mentioned it. It is a perfect role for Spader.Maggie Gyllenhaal is fantastic in it, through in it some dark humor and you have a cool independent film. Nice review.

    • garethrhodes says:

      Great to hear from you. Yes, I agree with you about Maggie Gyllenhaal, she really is sensational here. As an actress, she has a great commitment that I admire very much. Thank you for the kind words.

  3. Maryanne says:

    I loved this film too. Very sexy and sweet. And delightfully unexpected ending.

  4. Laura says:

    Love this film!

  5. simonprice18 says:

    Loved your reference to Fifty Shades. I never really thought about it before but the 2 are very similar with the concept of “risque” sexuality as their central themes. Secretary being a much much much better film though. I have it proudly placed in my DVD collection. Great review!

    • garethrhodes says:

      I couldn’t believe the similarities. Even down to the lead male character being called Mr Grey. You’re absolutely right, though. In terms of overall quality of film making, there is no comparison. Thank you again for such a thoughtful response.

  6. simonprice18 says:

    Wow! I had no idea Spader’s character was called Mr. Grey….that’s some seriously lazy plagiarism from E.L James right there haha

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