"The Secretary" is a movie directed by Steven Shainberg, starring James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Jeremy Davies. This movie was released in the fall of 2002 and quickly left the theaters. It is currently available for rental or purchase.
In "The Secretary" a young woman, recently released from a mental institution, finds a job as a secretary to an attorney. She has a deeply troubled past along with the standard Hollywood dysfunctional family. Her father is a recovering alcoholic, who resumes drinking, and her mother is very overprotective and who is herself a victim of spousal abuse. The young woman, Lee Holloway (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), practices self-mutilation as a way of dealing with her emotions within her family. Obtaining a job is another way for her to find an escape. The relationship between Lee and her boss, E. Edward Grey (played by James Spader) quickly turns to the bizarre after Lee has continuously made a number of typographical errors in her typing. Mr. Grey insists that an electric typewriter be used, so Lee does not have the modern technology of spell check to help with her typing. At one point, Mr. Grey demands that Lee bend over his desk and read the letter aloud. As she does so, he administers a spanking to Lee. Her initial reaction is shock, yet she does not move nor does she protest. She continues to read the letter as Mr. Grey continues to spank her.
The movie moves along, with the relationship progressing from one of strictly employee/supervisor to S/M to budding romance. Eventually, there is the conflict that all stories must have and the resolution that follows.
"The Secretary" has seemingly taken the BDSM community by storm, so to speak. There are many who engage in the lifestyle – as it is known – who are calling this film a rare glimpse into the real world of BDSM. Yet, is it? Or is this film destined to be another cult classic, without regard to depth, integrity, or understanding? Or, is it simply a very poorly made movie?
The opening lines of the movie begin with a narration by Lee, in which she states, "I was released from the institution on the day my sister got married." The scene that flashes on the screen is that of a young woman dressed in a dowdy and frumpy manner, who seems particularly vulnerable and fragile. A short time later, viewers find that Lee, in order to deal with the chaos of her home life, is involved with self-mutilation in the form of cutting, puncturing, and burning herself. The overall impression of Lee is an insecure, mentally fragile woman, who simply is unable to handle anything life might throw her way.
As the movie progresses, and her relationship with Mr. Grey intensifies, the viewers watch as Lee becomes more assertive, more confident, and more comfortable with whom she is. However, though her self-mutilation ends (at the direction of Mr. Grey), she continues down the road of physical pain at the hands of another, Mr. Grey.
Viewers will most likely be titillated and excited by the scenes that involve the erotic visions of spankings, light bondage, and masturbation. But are these few tidbits enough to keep an audience interested in the characters at hand? No, they are not. This movie is poorly written, poorly directed, and poorly delivered. There are long scenes that seem to have been contrived to stretch the movie out, and which serve no purpose to add to the plot or to the characters. The movie drones on, and the viewer finds themselves simply waiting for the next little tidbit the director or screenwriter has deigned to grace the screen with. It's simply not enough.
E. Edward Grey appears to come across as a complex character. In fact, he is simply a character that is never developed in the movie. The viewer is left not knowing or understanding this character whatsoever. There is neither motive nor explanation for his actions. The viewer must attempt to piece his actions together, and there isn't enough glue for that to happen. The movie attempts to make Mr. Grey into some sort of romantic figure, but all that remains on the screen is a man who is confused about what he is doing and, in general, is an asshole.
Lee Holloway never seems to be anything more than a woman with psychological problems that go unresolved. The shift in her mental fragility shifts from her own hands to that of her supervisor. The viewer is left with the idea that any woman who engages in this type of activity willingly simply must be just as psychologically damaged as Lee is. As one who engages in the activities played out in the movie, I can speak from personal experience that there are women who find this type of activity exciting and erotic and who are not under psychiatric care, who are not engaging in self-mutilation practices, and who are not insecure. The character of Lee is one that is simply not believable.
The movie itself is obviously low budget, which can be fine if a cast and crew can work together to make a great film. The movie, however, is not a great film. There are too many holes, too many unanswered questions. Mr. Grey's office appears to be huge. There is a long hallway that leads from the reception area to his office; yet, the only other staff is a paralegal. Why such a large office for only three people? The paralegal has knowledge of her boss' activities, yet remains silent, almost a shadowy figure on the outskirts playing a voyeur. This character seems useless and serves no purpose to the story whatsoever. Also, when Lee is hired, she is told that she is only responsible to type and to answer phones. Anyone who has ever worked for, or known, an attorney knows that his/her secretary is their right arm. The skills to work as a legal secretary are far and above simply typing and answering phones. So, there is another hole: where is Mr. Grey's real secretary? A successful attorney such as Mr. Grey would be interested in incorporating all the latest technology, yet insists that Lee use an electric typewriter so Lee is without benefit of spell check for her typing errors.
As mentioned before, the movie suddenly throws in scenes and props which leave the viewer wondering what purpose they serve. The screen flashes with Lee floating in a swimming pool a number of times, yet there is never a reason given as to what that means. Mr. Grey has an obsession with a wonderfully visually stimulating indoor garden. But, again, what does it mean or what purpose does it serve? Mr. Grey is also obsessed with mice in his office, and instructs Lee to set traps that will catch them so they can be released later. If Mr. Grey is a successful attorney, he can certainly hire an exterminator to remove the pests. Why does the movie make such an issue of catching mice, unless perhaps it is to drive home the point that Lee is soon to be trapped as the mice are?
It seems that there are scenes that have been developed by the director or screenwriter in an attempt to be visually stunning. Instead, they simply leave the viewer bored due to the length and number of these scenes.
The movie itself can't seem to decide what direction it wants to take. At times things appear almost comical, but the movie falls far short of comedy. The movie is too ridiculous to take as serious drama. There are elements of a romance, but it seems the movie is trying too hard. There are too many conflicts that are unresolved and unanswered for a true romance to be had. The ending leaves just as many questions as the rest of the movie.
Those individuals within the BDSM community are calling this movie a great achievement. In actuality, there are so few mainstream movies filmed involving the BDSM lifestyle that many will praise less than good quality work for the satisfaction of believing their sexuality is recognized as valid by society. This is sad indeed. There are many wonderful, funny, romantic, and sensitive relationships within the BDSM community. It is too bad that movies about these relationships are not made. Instead, the viewers are subjugated to movies such as "The Secretary."