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Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee Holloway
Miss Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), takes a letter...

cast: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Stephen McHattie, and Lesley Ann Warren

director: Steven Shainberg

106 minutes (18) 2002
widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Rob Marshall
Based on a story by Mary Gaitskill, this is an amusing black comedy about office romance, sexual politics, and spanking.
   After she is released from a state psychiatric hospital, following treatment for 'self-harm', quirky masochist Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko) needs to escape from her troubled life at home with drunkard dad Burt (Stephen McHattie) and overprotective mum Joan (Lesley Ann Warren). Everyone's happy when Lee gets her first-ever job, as a secretary to eccentric local lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader, Crash). But their boring professional relationship becomes something else entirely when Lee's ineptitude as a copy-typist provokes farcically violent outbursts from the usually restrained and oddly-mannered Mr Grey. However, Lee's surprising reaction is to become obsessed with an increasingly bizarre cycle of dominant-assertive, compulsive-submissive, sexually deviant behaviour, until she gets fired. Lee is now free to marry her dull boyfriend Peter (Jeremy Davies), but her twisted true love story with the lonely Grey man isn't over yet...
   Sadomasochistic melodrama is about as un-Hollywood as it's possible to get in the mainstream of independent cinema. Director Steven Shainberg marks out the territory in a witty prologue, as Lee efficiently goes about varied secretarial duties with both arms held outward in a bondage yoke - leading to the main story told in flashback 'six months earlier' when the delightfully kinky couple's perverse sexual fantasy begins. There is much wacky imagination and subtle poignancy here, and it's important to note that the SM scenes are nearly always funny instead of sleazy so Secretary works as a weird kind of 'date movie', too!
   Some brilliant acting by young Gyllenhaal, feisty and hypnotic in her portrayal of Lee's awakening secret personality, is evenly balanced by Spader's peculiar and expressive charm as the clearly tormented lawyer, whose secret shame over what he does to Lee almost brings him down. Although the movie's dramatic climax is an unfortunate copout, seeming closer to the conventional An Officer And A Gentleman than the unsettling Blue Velvet, it doesn't undermine the quirky candour of its preceding events, or the neatly ambiguous epilogue.
   Secretary deserves a wider audience than it's likely to get, and should be known for more than just having last year's most provocative poster. Tartan's DVD boasts anamorphic format and Dolby digital or DTS 5.1 audio in English, but there are no subtitles. Disc extras include interviews with Gyllenhaal (lively and intelligent), Spader (super-cool but not especially articulate), and Shainberg (at times overly animated, even if we'd expect him to be enthusiastic), plus film-biographical 'CV' info. There's a standard behind-the-scenes featurette, a super commentary by the director with screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, a theatrical trailer and TV spots.

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