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Intriguing story
Danny_G1317 June 2003
Secretary is the first of its kind - a very dark love story. First of its kind in that it deals with themes never seen before seen in mainstream Hollywood cinema - S&M, sexual dominance and submission.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is outstanding in a potential minefield of a role - she handles it with dignity and even provides some effective dark humour.

The story here is that her character, Lee, applies for a job as a secretary for the firm owned by James Spader's brilliant Mr Grey. However, Lee has a history of self-harm and masochism and Grey has a dominance complex along with a very sadistic streak. Combine these 2 in theory and you have 2 very happy people. But this is no ordinary love story...

Spader, as stated, is brilliant. He brings an icy steel to the troubled Grey, but also provides a touch of black humour which comes at some great moments to 'release the tension'.

For the themes supplied here you'd probably expect a lot of raunchiness - well there are sexual moments, of course, but there is nothing gratuitous, which is in itself an achievement and well handled.

Overall it's quirky, off-beat, and a little bit different.

Worth a view.
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Two great performances, one great film
bigspeegs1 October 2002
Warning: Spoilers
The word "originality" has been overused, especially by me, so much that it has almost been beaten to a pulp. After all, how can one really tell if something in a film hasn't been done before? Well, I can confidently say that Steven Shainberg's "Secretary" may be the most inventive, and yes, even original, film this year. I can confidently say that in all of my time of watching and reviewing films, I have never seen anything like it.

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been released from a mental institution due to the fact that she constantly would cut herself when tension started to build up around the household. After she is released, it is clear that the habit has not been broken, but cuts or no cuts, she needs a job. She goes to typing school and gets some of the highest grades in her class, making her perfect for the position of secretary at a nearby lawyer's office. She goes for the interview, and after seeing the previous secretary run out in tears and hearing the questions in the interview, it is apparent that the lawyer, E. Edward Grey (James Spader), is a bit of a creep.

Soon enough, Lee begins to cut herself at work, and needless to say, Grey catches her in the act. He doesn't take any sort of disciplinary action towards her. Instead, it seems that he can relate. He tells Lee, very inspiringly, that she will never cut herself again. Lee is uplifted, but has no real inclination as to just why he said what he did. However, she still continues to make mistakes in her writing, and after a while, it simply drives Grey nuts. He invites her into her office and tells her to "Lean over, put your elbows on the table and read the letter outloud". She does as he asks, but in a strange turn, he spanks her every other word. She runs into the bathroom hurt and embarrassed, but interestingly enough, she loved it.

I'm a bit surprised that even by this time, there has been little controversy over "Secretary". I had images in my head of feminist groups rallying for the film never to reach the screens, or possibly screams of NC-17 from everyone's favorite censors, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Thankfully though, it's gotten this far unscathed. Maybe that is because audiences at preview screenings and film festivals are realizing that although loaded with thick layers of kooky (but not that kinky) S/M, the situation is a deeply and fundamentally human one.

Basically, if S/M was ever shown in a film before, it would usually be in the context of a villain torturing a hero against their will, and usually such scenes weren't in anything that wasn't some cheap exploitation film. "Secretary" is a brave endeavor, but it knows where it's going. This isn't a gimmick, S/M sequences in the film are not the least bit perverted (the same can't be said about some segments in several Larry Clark films). These scenes are essential to understanding the characters.

What is so great about "Secretary" goes beyond its offering insight as to why anyone would find being tied to a pole and spanked while holding a carrot between their teeth even remotely attractive. Despite pretty morbid subject matter, "Secretary" flies off the screen with energy and wit, offering some of the funniest, most surprising dark comedy I have seen since "Fargo". Several scenes in the film have already become classics in my repertoire of movie moments that will stay with me forever, including one hilarious incident involving a worm.

Even with all of this, there is no way that "Secretary" would have pulled it off without Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. Spader is creepy and oddly pathetic; his performance is such that at one moment we are sympathetic, the next we are booing him, then we're intrigued again. Maggie Gyllenhaal is equally brilliant; she gives us complete access into the mind of Lee Holloway, and it's close to impossible not to feel for her. Also, take into account how courageous she is; you try and find me another actress her age who would be willing to do half of the things she does in the film.

Spader and Gyllenhaal have such chemistry that everything clicks. Director Steven Shainberg lets us truly understand the complexities of their relationship without letting the energy lag or any of the subtle comedy fly past the audience. "Secretary" is invigorating, touching, hilarious, and often all at the same time. With too many romantic comedies trying too hard to try something new when they are in fact only going backwards, "Secretary" is a truly unique specimen.
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a dark comedy layered with nuanced social and personal commentary
stephenksmith13 April 2003
What is the path to love? For every person, it's different. The superficial circumstances are similar... you meet someone at work, at school, in a singles bar. And, usually, the emotional pathways are similar. Eyes meet. We talk. We dance. We communicate about ourselves to each other. Then begins the sexual part, so we parry and thrust, take signals from each other, and, over time, we feel each other up together. But what about the path to love through the back door (so to speak)? What about a love story where she's a young, neurotic woman, just out of a mental hospital back to a family where Dad's a serious drunk and Mom's a serious nervous fruitcake. And what about a man, an attorney, who's emotionally closed off and can only get in touch with orchids, inserting long stainless-steel tools into their waiting organs. Yes, these two find each other in one of the most bizarre cinematic love stories ever.

I loved this movie. I pilgrim around, searching through books and movies for secret pathways to and circumstances of the human heart. This movie transcends its gentle S&M to reveal yet another way to love.

Our heroine, the fresh-faced (and magnificently moon-like) Maggie Gyllenhaal is brilliant as the new secretary to a lawyer who goes through so many secretaries, he has a "secretary" vacancy sign he lights up outside his office. As our heroine tries to re-enter the world by getting her first job with this man, it becomes apparent that the boss is anything but normal. He is demanding yet insistent that his new charge break away from her stifling past and be herself. But what or who is she? And who in the hell is he?

The movie is sexy. There's no denying it. Gyllenhaal is radiant and sinuous, and we feel that she's truly experiencing the wonder of it all for the first time. Spader is type-cast a bit, but his world-weary sexiness fits well with Gyllenhaal's naiveté. And, let's face it, Gyllenhaal is grippingly sexy, and we see her in hose, panties, tight skirts and in the nude. And as far as I'm concerned, she's fabulous, darling. And in one of the movie's sexiest, most endearing scenes, we see Spader carry her off in her urine-soaked wedding dress as he finally assumes his responsibilities as her loving "dom". She is totally tired, subservient and radiant in total surrender, rescued from a voyeurizing world. What a hunk of sexy cinema that was with her arm languidly draped around Spader's neck as he carried the bride over the threshold to love and dominance. Wow.

This movie explores and explodes sexual myths. The director has successfully created a dark comedy layered with nuance in a stew of social commentary. This movie is not for everyone. Stay away if you're conventionally wrapped, conservative, or lacking in a certain joy of exploration. But if you're ready for a most untraditional-traditional love story, Spader and Gyllenhaal give Oscar worthy performances... but of course the subject matter nixed that.
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Fantastic love story
Bjorn (ODDBear)21 October 2004
Warning: Spoilers
A self abusing mentally unstable girl finds herself a job as a secretary in a law firm owned by mysterious Spader. The two start a kinky relationship and their lives change dramatically in the process.

This is really a beautiful love story. It's quite unusual subject matter (the nature of their relationship) may cause some viewers to discard the film, which is a shame 'cause this film is really nothing but a romantic little story about two people, who feel alienated and alone, who find each other. The need to find a kindred spirit is something we all want, no matter how different we feel we are from the rest. In some ways, the charming ending, when they finally get together, reminded me in some ways of the ending in "An Officer and a Gentleman". Hope someone will relate to that.

The acting is superb. James Spader is fantastic as the troubled lawyer and Maggie Gyllenhaal is perfect as well. This is a well written, well directed and moving film that is sure to delight all those who are open minded to some unusual twists in an otherwise universal love story.

9 out of 10
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Not Your Typical Office Romance
Ralph Michael Stein22 September 2002
Maggie Gyllenhaal deserves an Oscar nomination for her brilliant portrayal of borderline psychotic, self-mutilating Lee Holloway, a former mental institution patient seeking to sustain herself - vocationally and emotionally - in a challenging world where she has few safe harbors. She comes from a messy family background although that alone can't explain her illness.

Learning typing, she gets a secretary's job with lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader, who also turns in a first-rate, nuanced performance). Grey refuses to have any computers in his very smart, expensive law office. Like many lawyers he's a perfectionist who abhors typographical errors but his obsession with perfection reflects more than an anal personality hitched to a law degree. His solo practice seems to thrive better than his self-control of a suppressed sexuality, awakened by Maggie at first unknowingly.

This is a film about what many consider to be deviant behavior (sado-masochism and bondage-discipline, not your usual Hollywood romantic fun and games) that most will concur is uncommon in the workplace. Director Steven Shainberg and his cast - and Gyllenhaal and Spader carry the film, forget the supporting actors - show Lee and Grey's rocky and developing relationship with candor, without condemnation and without exploitation. The lawyer and his secretary are sexualized in a way few have experienced and those who have don't talk to folks outside their circle.

This is a black comedy/a black drama. It either grabs or repels the viewer: there's no in-between. The resolution? Is it realistic or a cop-out? I'd love to hear from those able to comment from experience on IMDb's discussion board. But I have a feeling few will post reactions.

A very different film that I rate 8/10 on a personal scale where I value the deep and tortured acting projecting the absorbing conflict of this sexualized working (initially) relationship.
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Thoughtful and yes, sentimental.
Kurt Berger14 April 2003
Those Gyllenhalls, they sure can act. Maggie, like her brother Jake, turns in great performances like they're routine - she makes it look easy. In 'Secretary', she delivers a layered, complex performance as Lee Holloway, a disturbed young lady who deals with stress by cutting herself - the pain pushes away everything else that's bothering her.

As she's released from an institution back into the world, she takes her first job as secretary to lawyer E. Edward Grey, played by James Spader. From then on, the movie explores their relationship and how it affects Lee, taking her from the quiet, self-damaging wallflower into the determined and strong woman she becomes.

The film's use of S&M in the relationship between Lee and Mr. Grey makes it a bit controversial, but it's not really the focus here. The idea of Lee as the submissive and Mr. Grey as the dominant have little to do with their sexuality and everything to do with their personality issues.

Lee can't handle extreme emotion without resorting to pain, because she can't take control of her own life. What she sees in Mr. Grey is love - absolute love, the likes of which she can't find with her fiance Peter (Jeremy Davies). That love allows her to give him the power of her pain - by doing that, she's finding something worthy to focus on instead of the nothingness of her sewing kit and iodine.

Mr. Grey, for his part, is a man who can't deal with anything except in his own ordered, regimented way. He cares for his orchids but little else, and the steps he takes with Lee open up his wary heart. He's slower to develop than she is, and to take the final steps towards a real, lasting relationship, he has to be dragged there by the force of Lee's own will.

The key to this film - and S&M relationships in general - is that Lee (the submissive) has all the power, not Mr. Grey (the dominant). She sets the terms by which the relationship will be conducted, seemingly for the first time in her entire life (including the relationships with her family). Lee finds love and desire in Mr. Grey, and pursues it while healing her own shattered psyche in the process.

Maggie Gyllenhall is luminous here. She can say more with a facial expression than most can in a Shakespearean soliloquy. She gives herself completely over to the part, without a wink or a nudge that she's just kidding, or thinks any part of this is silly. She becomes Lee Holloway, which is the best compliment you can give an actor. Spader, for his part, follows in a long string of oddballs, but doesn't go over the top, as he could have been tempted to do. This is Maggie's movie, and he supports it and plays off it well.

Rating: 8/10, based on the strong performance of Maggie Gyllenhall and the character of Lee Holloway, but nocked down due to a poorly-constructed finale that just doesn't fit with the rest of the film. Highly recommended.
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low-keyed, quirky black comedy
Roland E. Zwick18 May 2003
Warning: Spoilers
`Secretary' is an odd little sadomasochistic fantasy in which a lawyer and his secretary establish a kind of master/slave relationship in the office.

Lee Halloway is a deeply disturbed young woman who has just been released from a mental institution where she has been recuperating from a nervous breakdown. Lee copes with her severely dysfunctional family - her father is an alcoholic who beats his wife, while her mother is a passive victim of abuse who overprotects her daughter - by cutting, gashing and burning herself regularly. Now, back on the outside, Lee finds employment as secretary to a paralegal, E. Edward Grey, an equally neurotic man who turns out to be a full-blown `dominator' behind closed doors. Together the two forge a bizarre sexual alliance so all-consuming in its nature that one wonders how this small office ever gets any work done at all.

Writer Erin Cressida Wilson and director Steven Shainberg have fun with the many ironies and paradoxes inherent in the offbeat world they are exploring. For instance, Grey, by restricting Lee's freedom of choice, is actually liberating her by getting her to channel her self-abusive tendencies and desire for pain into a `healthier,' more `productive' direction. Lee also discovers that men with unconventional sexual tastes may be no more willing to `settle down' and `commit' with a likeminded partner than many a man with more traditional sexual proclivities.

In many ways, `Secretary' turns out to be almost a recruiting poster for the sadomasochistic lifestyle. The S&M scenes are kept relatively tame in tone and the film displays a wickedly funny sense of humor for most of its duration. Moreover, the decidedly upbeat ending of the film could easily have garnished any Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedy - had standards 40 years ago allowed them to explore this type of topic, that is.

As Lee and Grey, Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader turn in terrific performances. They manage to capture the quirky nature of their respective characters without ever making them appear off-putting or grotesque. Their performances go a long way towards purging the material of the kind of sleaziness and smarminess one might expect to find here.

The early scenes in the film may be a bit disturbing for some in the audience, mainly because we feel a bit like voyeurs peering in on the couple, almost as if they were zoo animals or subjects in some sort of psycho-sexual experiment. But then, as we get to know the characters and come to like them, we become absorbed in their story and find ourselves actually cheering them on and wanting them to find some measure of meaning and happiness in their relationship and lives.

The makers of `Secretary' have taken a potentially `touchy' subject and injected it with warmth, humanity and insight. It's hard not to feel uplifted by this film.
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The most original romantic comedy I've seen in YEARS! Highly recommended.
Infofreak9 March 2004
I may be a jaded old cynic but from time to time a contemporary movie knocks me off my seat. Recently there's been quite a few -'May', 'Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance' and 'Auto Focus' immediately spring to mind. 'Secretary' is another recent gem. This is the most original romantic comedy (very black, mind you) I've seen in YEARS! And for something which deals with a lifestyle alien to me (dominance and submission) it's surprisingly touching, and even managed to get me to shed a tear or two. I had previously enjoyed Maggie Gyllenhaal's supporting roles in 'Donnie Darko' and John Waters' 'Cecil B. Demented' (she played Raven, the make up artist - "Pain is pleasure! Slavery is freedom! Suicide for Satan!' remember?), but her performance here is first class and is guaranteed to turn her into a major cult figure if not an actual genuine STAR. I confess that I now have a major crush on her to boot (I'm sure I'm not alone!). James Spader is also very, very good. While I admired him appearing in Cronenberg's 'Crash' a few years ago most of his other film choices have been safe ones and to be honest I'd pretty much given up on him as an actor. But it just goes to show what an actor is capable of with an innovative script and a supportive director. It's really difficult imagining any other two actors playing these roles any better. In the supporting cast Jeremy Davies also surprised me. I'd been getting a bit tired of his crazy shtick in previous roles, especially his extremely irritating performance in 'The Million Dollar Hotel', but he did a much more subtle job in this movie, and it really worked for me. This is my first experience with director Steven Shainberg but I was impressed. I now want to try and see his previous movie, the Jim Thompson adaptation 'Hit Me'. I also look forward to his next movie, because if 'Secretary' is any indication of his talent then he's sure to come up with something very special. Highly recommend.
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I just want to watch it over and over and over again!
Monica493715 February 2004
Warning: Spoilers
WARNING this review contains SPOILERS:

This film is beautiful in so many ways; Maggie's portrayal of a submissive was just pure delight. She did SUCH an incredible job in every scene involving her and James Spader. I mean the part where he first starts spanking her...her eyes...they were just so expressive! Even though she didn't really talk you could totally understand everything that was going on in her head through her eyes. Just beautiful!

And James Spader! wow...I've always been impressed by his acting and have always found him incredibly attractive and sexy, but after viewing this film...I fell completely in love with him all over again.

Even though the movie really centers around Maggie's character and her battle with sexuality and cutting and what not...I found James' character's battle to be more intriguing and actually bigger. He's become completely intimate with her and every time he even looks at her he wants to bang the sh*t out of her. So his way of dealing with that is through exercising. And his whole obsessive complusiveness was, well to me, kind of funny.

Some of my most favorite scenes in this film was when James fires Maggie yet she doesn't want to leave. He sits down in a chair and she comes up to the side of him and starts running her fingers through his hair. The expression on his face while she does that is just so enthrawling! I mean just the touch of her makes him go into an orgasmic bliss! I also love the scene where She is lying naked on the grass and he is rubbing his hand over her stomach touching every cut and scar. And you hear her voice over talking about how she used to be shy about having sex because she didn't want anyone to see her cuts; she was so ashamed of herself, yet he didn't care at all about them and loved her for everything she is. She felt beautiful when with him and wasn't ashamed anymore. It was just fantastik! And my 3rd favorite scene was when James starts kissing maggie and works his way down her body, and while he's doing this she starts asking him questions like "I wanna know when your first love was, when you had your first kiss, what your favorite color is, where you were born..." and he had worked his way back up and stops right above her face and answers her question about where he was born. She then gets this big smile on her face right before he leans closer and kisses her deeply. I don't care what anyone else says, but that scene had my heart racing a mile a minute, it was so sweet.

Despite all of the things that had happened in the past these 2 found acceptance in each other and because of that will love one another forever. I HIGHLY recommend seeing this film. You will become so attached to it I swear! my rating is 9/10.
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Very original
rbverhoef17 April 2004
'Secretary' deals with a daring and original subject and does this in an effective and funny way. Its subject is sadomasochism, its genre is a romantic comedy. The secretary is Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who suffers from self-mutilation, her boss is Mr. Grey (James Spader), who seems the coldest man alive. When they are in the same room you feel that there is something there, they both feel it too. Since the movie opens with a certain S/M scene we already know that there is a point in the movie where the two must find each other and start the sadomasochism activities. I will not reveal how and when it happens, but the moment is great.

Saying too much about the story would spoil things. We laugh at the right times, which is a good thing. Considering the subject it is even hard to accomplish that since people who are not familiar with it laugh very easy when they see strange things. For most audiences the events will be strange. The original approach of the movie, the performances perfect for this movie, the funny moments and an ending that plays exactly as it should this is a good movie and one of the most original romantic comedies I have seen.
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oh, james, oh, maggie...
lasciare28 September 2002
How refreshing!! It has been quite some time since I went to the movies and walked out feeling I could wholeheartedly endorse the film I just saw. When asked why this film was so good by my coworkers, I responded "the actors' performances, the sets, the script, the content, essentially everything." And so it is, everything. Thank the spirits that flow someone still has the ability, honesty, and energy to make such a film in the land of fakery and deception. While the relationship depicted is that of a sadist and a masochist and this is what will get played up in the press, the point is the relationship and the near impossibility of love working without complete honesty. Bravo.
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Quirky, fun, and everything I ever wanted in a film!
u2rave2 November 2002
"Secretary" is everything I have ever wanted in a film: romance, humor, drama, and kinky sex! The incredible chemistry between an amazing Maggie Gyllenhaal and a repressed yet fierce James Spader is what makes this movie work so well, and the tender depths to which their relationship is portrayed makes it so much more than just a film about sadomasochism. I felt that the main theme of the film was to show that people have pain, and it is only when you accept that pain that you are able to feel your emotions fully, therefore making your life much more livable. This movie was a bit quirky, and might not be for everyone. However, I would recommend it to anyone with an open mind. "Secretary" is by far my favorite film of the year.
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My new favorite James Spader movie!
songbird_mc22 October 2002
I saw this movie twice & want to see it again... & again... & again. *LOL* I really enjoyed it. At first I thought that it might be too risque for my taste, but I was pleasently surprised. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of risque, but it was played out so well that it just blended. I was amazed when I realized that this movie wasn't ALL about Sub/Dom, but in fact it was a love story. I wasn't disappointed. I recommend seeing this film if you haven't already, & even if you have. =)

I am a very big fan of James Spader & he was so amazing in this film. He was beautiful, funny, complex, & sexy. I'll be his secretary any day.

I was also surprised by the fact that I liked Maggie Gyllenhaal. She is a very good actress & alot more attractive than in any of the pictures I have ever seen of her. Everyones acting is Superb, the directing superb, & the story *****!!!!!! My raves don't even do this movie justice. Just go see it!

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Wonderful, beautiful, sexy
harriet_jarvis22 June 2004
What a fantastic movie. It must be the sexiest movie I've ever seen and it actually has a story!

There was little nudity but the eroticism is created by the long slow build ups. When Lee is unable to get Edward's attention you feel her frustration, and this makes his decision to give in to her a much bigger pay-off.

I disagree with a lot of the reviewers about the ending being trite - I think the cheesy, white picket fence style conclusion serves to prove to any doubters that a sub/dom relationship isn't in any way distasteful or abnormal, that it's perfectly possible to indulge in non-vanilla sex and live a normal happy life.

And if you've ever worked as a secretary, then you'll identify with many of the scenes. The sad thing is that IRL when your boss doesn't help you put a water bottle in the cooler or asks you to retrieve something from the rubbish it's not because he's secretly lusting after you, it's because he's an unhelpful git. And he won't look like James Spader. Dammit.
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More tease than strip
The_Void13 October 2004
In this romantic black comedy, Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Lee Holloway, the lady worker of the title. As you probably already know, this secretary doesn't just push pens and use paper clips, she has another, more exciting capacity as her boss's love object. The film actually isn't quite as naughty as many people think it thinks it is, but the truth is that the sadomasochistic area of the film isn't really all that important. The film isn't really about obscure sexual preferences, it's about finding someone whom you are comfortable with and the S&M is just a means to an end. The sex aspect of the film does serve a purpose, however, in that it's that which makes the film a social satire of this culture of flirting in the office; a very over the top one, that is, and one that gives the film it's shock value; but to be honest, you don't really get to see that much bondage. The film is very original in it's portrayal of S&M however, as it's a very taboo subject and for it to be portrayed in a sweet and upbeat manner like this is welcome and very different.

As mentioned, Maggie Gyllenhaal takes the title role and starring opposite her is James Spader as her boss. Gyllenhaal's character is sweet, inexperienced and bashful. She's very easy to like, but she can also be annoying at times. Spader's character is the complete opposite; despite being insecure, he comes across as being cold, calm and collected. He keeps his emotions hidden inside and reveals very little about himself, unlike Maggie's character who is happy to wear her emotions on her sleeve and doesn't seem to mind what other people think. Observe the way that the boss continues to tell her to put her shoes on because her feet stink etc; not exactly the most conscientious person to ever walk the earth. Despite being chalk and cheese, however, the two characters blend together in a way that is both believable and interesting, and this makes for some great chemistry between the two leads that is hard not to enjoy. The fact that they are chalk and cheese is a help and not a hindrance to the film as it serves in making it all the more interesting. My only quibble with the characterization is the ending, which although it brings the message out, seems tacked on and rather unrealistic…but it's not enough to spoil the film.

Overall, Secretary is not a masterpiece, but it is a very good portrayal love, and one that is far superior to dull and dreary films such as 'Lost in Translation'. It's entertaining for it's duration, there are several funny moments and the central message, which states that it's worth going to extremes for the one you love is a worthwhile one for any movie, even if it is someone lost under the premise of the movie. Recommended.
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Peculiar Love Story
d_sakaki5 August 2003
I watched this with my boyfriend and we both thought it was

romantic... in a weird sort of way. It's really just an old fashioned

love story where boy meets girl and both have a shared affinity for

some kinky good-lovin'.

An interestingly told tale, it grabs you right from the beginning and

makes you want to keep watching to see where the characters go.

You're absolutely mesmerized by the transformation of Lee and Mr.

Grey -- great casting. I'm a huge James Spader fan and it seemed

like he really hit the jackpot with this truly unique character. It's not

some angry man/submissive woman story. Both characters have

an equal hold on one another and they both hold the power of

change over each other's lives. It's extraordinary to see the focus

and sense of power Lee has over her boss, even in her most

submissive poses. This movie has nothing to do with subverting

women or portraying men as physical monsters.

Love is everywhere. Even in the most unique people. I recommend

this movie to people willing to see a new twist on the old love story.

It's also quite funny and poignant; not gratuitous at all.
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A young woman's journey of self discovery.
kaodonnell15 October 2002
This dark, romantic comedy is both touching and inspirational. Maggie Gyllenhaal's transformation from timid, self-mutilating mouse to sensual, self-confident woman is amazingly poignant. With a minimum of dialogue, both Gyllenhaal and James Spader (who plays her boss) are able to convey volumes. I walked out of the theater feeling both exhilarated and optimistic. Expect great things from Maggie Gyllenhaal in the future, and thanks to the director for coaxing such a multidimensional and compelling heartbreaking performance from James Spader. I hope you like it...
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Deliciously atypical cinematic fare!!
shubee3220 April 2003
Please indulge me while I gushingly discuss this little gem of a movie I saw last night, called Secretary. Yes, I know it was released a while ago, but since my wallet has been bereft of its pecuniary innards of late, I had to wait for the rental.

Is Secretary as creepy a psychosexual office thriller as its trailer might lead us to believe? Yes and no. Chances are, however, if the director has cast James Spader as the male lead, the viewer knows they're in for an unnerving cinematic journey. That said, there is a strong psychosexual current running through this story, but it's far from creepy; if you're occasionally inclined to use film as a means of accessing your emotions and promoting self-awareness, this might be the movie for you.

The story is that tried-but-true formula: self-mutilating girl gets out of a mental institution, returns to her dysfunctional family life, gets a job as a secretary for an anal-retentive, emotionally repressed attorney, and finds redemption and herself in the context of a sado-masochistic relationship. Yawn. How banal! This is a stunning, existential coming-of-age black comedy, and, along with Happy Accidents, one of the best unorthodox love stories I've seen this year.

Relative newcomer Maggie Gylenhaal plays Lee Holloway, our emotionally unstable protagonist. Her performance is revealing and revelatory, a brave portrayal of inner turmoil played with grace and complexity. The aforementioned Spader plays Lee's equally disturbed employer, E. Edward Gray, delivering yet another of his trademark plagued-by-inner-demons characters. I am consistently astounded by Spader's ability to infuse potentially deplorable characters with such intricate humanity that he is able to elicit sympathy and understanding. James Spader is one of our best under-utilized character actors, and thankfully has never allowed himself to be co-opted by the Hollywood mainstream. Cheers, James.

The sado-masochistic element of this film could have easily drifted into self-parody; instead, director Steven Shainberg uses it subtly and without shame as a means of exhibiting deliverance and liberation. In some ways, this film is also a meditation on power and sex roles. Lee's initial willingness to acquiesce to her boss' punitive ministerings could have easily made her a victim, i.e. of an employer, a man and an elder. Instead, this is her gateway into adulthood, allowing her to develop the inner resources to be a self-determined woman relentless in the pursuit of what and whom she wants.

Anyone involved in a long-term relationship knows that an essential ingredient is variable power balance; it's inevitable, despite some people's claims that they have a completely `equal' affiliation. These power shifts help keep romance vibrant, and equally as important, instruct us how to navigate life's rocky travails, resulting in wisdom and self-acceptance. What men often think as strength--stoicism, aloofness, obstinacy--are, more often than not, actually weaknesses, leading to ignorance, avoidance and ultimate demise. Paradoxically, it's in complete vulnerability where we actually discover what we're capable of, being able to develop emotional resilience and learning to express desire, sexual or otherwise. Gylenhaal's Lee Holloway crystallizes this vulnerability-as-strength concept beautifully, making an appealing case for growth by any means necessary. Shame is often self-imposed, and convention can serve as prison. Ultimately, each of us must choose our own path to self-actualization, and it's legitimate if it works for you.

Conversely, Spader's growth stems from actually succumbing to Lee's powerful will. His apparent `dominance,' in the end leads to his submission to her insistence that they be together. Ultimately, both benefit from the relationship, as an audience can benefit from viewing this unusual, luminous film.

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amalgamation22 February 2005
This is one of my favorite films...everything about it is beautiful. The directing and cinematography were outstanding!!! And the story...very touching.

I feel this film does a wonderful job of showing people that in a sado-masochistic relationship there still lies the basic principles of all relationships. There is love, understanding, affection and above all dedication.

I also feel it brings the viewers to a greater understanding of why people choose to live these lifestyles. It helps them to understand some of the reasoning behind sadism and masochism.

The story of two people in a alternative lifestyle couldn't have seemed more natural or more loving than it did in this movie. Spectacular!
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When a Masochist Meets a Sadistic – An Unconventional Love Story
Claudio Carvalho3 May 2004
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a self-destructive and submissive woman, with suicide tendencies, who has just left a sanatorium after a breakdown. She has a kind of kit in a box for self-inflicting pain when she feels in trouble. Lee decides to get a typing course and when she finishes it, she decides to look for a job of secretary. She finds an advertisement in the newspaper, goes to an office, and the lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader) hires her. The details is that Edward is sadistic and a very dominating man, who humiliates Lee most of the time. Of course they will fall in love for each other, after many funny situations. This low budget movie is a wonderful unconventional romantic comedy, one of the weirdest I have ever seen, supported by excellent lead actor and actress and an original screenplay. The always-excellent James Spader is one of my favorite actors, and Maggie Gyllenhaal gives also an extraordinary performance in this film. The situations that Lee uses to tease Edward are hilarious. My vote is eight.

Title (Brazil): ` Secretária' (` Secretary')
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Good to see...
i_ron_d_uke5 October 2002
Good to see a mainstream movie showing consensual BDSM in a positive light for once, without references to serial killers or abuse (which have nothing whatever to do with consensual BDSM). Well done to all who made it.
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So much is admirable and gripping; yet alas, given away.
Tom May18 January 2004
(Ah, at long last: a return to procrastinating, ruminating and insinuating my views on film via a IMDb User Comment...! It seems a while, though is maybe only four months. This viewing was an all-too-rare trip to the cinema for me of late, and it was indeed a Late Show, piping up with its typewriter-attended credits at as late as 11pm, in Cinema 2 at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse.)

Now, "Secretary"... indeed, these matters make very daring subject matter for relatively mainstream Hollywood to be taking on. I think I can say that Shainberg and company managed to avoid putting fatal feet wrong. It is not an exceptional film overall, but at least for the first three-quarters is disarmingly entertaining, and edge-of-the-seat. It is a true boon for the film that I really didn't know how this was going to resolve itself, at 2/3 of the way in; the superb lead performances and a very astute script strike just the right uncertain, curious tone. The events we are shown are not held up as any general example - it is key to remember that - and yet, it gets one thinking interestingly of real-world relations between the sexes; at work and in amorous affairs particularly.

I loved Maggie Gyllenhaal here; a really thoughtful show of acting. Putting herself at the picture's centre, and imbuing the whole construct with human frailties and mannerisms. I adored Gyllenhaal's deft sleights of hand in conveying Lee's development of character: from the doe-eyed vacancy of an utter misfit girl, to a burgeoning, rather mischievous woman, who comes to terms with her intense sexuality and the way to relate to others. Others... well, to a certain Messr. E. Edward Gray; Spader plays this oddball lawyer with a delightfully lilting serpentine quality. He refuses to be pinned down or stared in the face by the audience, until the facade becomes entirely impossible. Unquestionably, the character takes advantage, but as the film's last act attests, only good eventually seems to come from this. Lee's family scenes amuse at the very first, and then do reveal themselves as essentially cardboard; we get little sense of depth or real dynamics going on: allegedly, much was cut from this portion of things. And as the parts we do have are nowhere near as well handled and interesting as the sparky, thoughtful Gyllenhaal-Spader scenes, maybe it was quite right that they were minimised.

The ending is sadly a misguided, doddering drawing of the veil over proceedings. Any degree of edginess or sinewy uncertainty that had been stirred in the spectator is shunned; bolted away from, indeed, by a very unsatisfying conclusion. A kind of Happy Ending on Happy Ending-hallucinogens; it frankly jars with and dismantles the thoughtful, spellbinding atmosphere hitherto sustained, and answers none of the tantalising questions that were forming themselves in my mind while watching the main body of the film. It is manifestly an avoidance of drama and real engagement with the scenario as it is set up; one expected some form of revelation about Gray's problematic life, yet, what do we get? An entire recantation, and a wondrously Changed Man in essential characteristics. I will insist that it ought not to have been as simple as that; it impoverishes an intriguing character.

Disappointingly, we miss any reflection on the sublime Peter's fate, after 'his Lee'; so very touching is the actor, playing an awkward, romantic Middle-American young man. See for example, his teary, bemused quality of haplessness when he imitates Lee's hands on the table gesture, as means of questioning what on earth she was doing on their wedding day, in Gray's office. A shame that this character wasn't delved into further; I'm sure an ambivalence might have emerged.

Furthermore, the lingering would-be ambiguous final shots are appalling; what are these supposed to denote? It would have been more honest to the rest of the conclusion to have had the couple cuddling lasciviously. These final shots merely lend an ever more doubtful, thrown-together impression, artistically. I won't go into the sham of the media coverage of Lee's 'vigil'; hook, line and sinker, it was the main offender in this film's downfall. Inappropriate, 'wacky' humour, cartwheeling in a tone from a completely different sort of film; in no conceivable sense did it pay any sort of dividend...

I will continue to dwell on negative aspects, as I feel it is important to note that this film - while on the whole very good - made some genuine errs. The voice-over really adds nothing; as with so many latter-day motion pictures, it is latched onto as a device presumably denoting 'cool' or, merely, 'the way things are', as it increasingly seems. These irrelevant, none too telling asides to the audience are a long way from William Holden and all that wonderful misanthropy - meddling with the audience's perceptions and expectations - in "Sunset Boulevard", back in 1950. Why not just try and 'show' a story visually? Unless an extra narrative voice is actually required or would add something tangible to the film's whole; better to let the cinematic deal with showing, rather than telling.

Anyway, enough of my casting dismaying briars into the critical blancmange; I have to insist that this was a most worthwhile, well-handled film - at least for most of its running time. It is a shame that the ending so rubs the rest of the film up the wrong way, as even as a whole, I must say it was appropriately teasing concoction, with splendid leading performances and appropriate handling of apparently 'non-mainstream' sexual issues.
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at long last
pookey566 October 2002
this film enthralled me from beginning to end. i was afraid it would be another exercise about counselling r us, angst, and feminist apologies. something more like LOVE CRIMES. the heroine is exquisite, and if i didnt know better, i would guess that she knew all about that unbelievable look on her face. and i've always been a big fan of james spader, who doesnt seem to have an ego when he chooses a role. i'm going to watch this one again. and again.
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A Unique Kind of Love Story
utgard141 May 2014
This one was really a pleasant surprise. I was expecting a black comedy as well as a movie that deals with kinky fetishes. It's both of those things but, surprisingly, it's also a very nice and sweet love story. Yes, really. Maggie Gyllenhaal is wonderful. I think this is easily my favorite role of hers. She's funny, adorable, and sexy. James Spader's great but Maggie really makes the movie something special.

Obviously not for all tastes but I would say that you should try it out, even if the BDSM stuff doesn't float your boat. I think you'll be surprised at how much you like it. One thing that I would like to address is that I see a lot of other reviewers who liked the movie saying they hated the ending. Gotta say I can't disagree more with this. I assume these people would have preferred a more downbeat ending. Frankly, that would have ruined the whole experience for me and I would have subtracted points from my score. The fact that the ending left me with the warm fuzzies is a large part of why I enjoyed it so much.
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One of the most stirring films of 2002. (possible spoilers)
FightingIrish28 December 2003
Warning: Spoilers
One of the lowest points an actor can hit in his or her career is playing a character based entirely on mannerisms. This occurs a lot (in fact, far too much) in comedy. The writer does not have either a) the confidence, or more simply, b) the intelligence to allow their character(s) to be free enough to enable the actor(s) to explore all of their inner workings. I thought this would be the case in SECRETARY, the second film by Steven Shainberg. I was dead wrong. SECRETARY is not really a plot as much as it is a story. Stories are about characters and what happens to them. To talk about the plot would say very little because SECRETARY is (rightfully so) more concerned with its characters and their lives than what happens around them. The story begins with Lee Holloway, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal in a role that transcends anything she has done before. It is startling. At the beginning of the film Lee is released from an institution where she was committed a while back for self-mutilation. Her mother (Lesley Ann Warren) is bizarre, a neurotic with a strange laugh and an intimidating smile. Her father (Stephen McHattie) is an alcoholic, with a nasty temper, and thus he drives Lee back to her cutting. What is great, though, is the fact that Erin Cressida Wilson, the writer, does not allow these characters to simply be defined by their mannerisms, but to have feelings and emotions as well. After Lee's father leaves the house, he turns to Lee through phone calls out of desperation. Lee's mother always seems joyful, but then we have scenes of her shoveling kitchen knives into a cupboard and locking it to protect Lee. This is when I realized that it was not going to be a simple film. We are introduced to two more important characters (not including Lee's sister): Peter (Jeremy Davies) another quirky character who went to high school with Lee and has now developed affectionate feelings towards her, so they begin dating. All goes well until Lee decides that she needs a job, so she applies for a secretarial position, and we are introduced to the final and most important character next to Lee: Mr. E. Edward Grey. Grey (played by James Spader in a role that also transcends all of his previous work. He is a stern, hard-assed, seemingly straight-laced lawyer who employs Lee because he sees some desperation in her eyes, and he has felt those same feelings as well. The rest of the film concerns their relationship and how in develops from dominance-submission into love.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is a remarkable actress and she proves it in this role. Nothing she has done before (she's had a handful of supporting roles in films such as Waters' CECIL B. DEMENTED and Richard Kelly's masterpiece DONNIE DARKO) has been as risky as this. Spader's Grey parallels Lee in his suffering; only he has not found a way that is acceptable to him to deal with it. Sadomasochism is not a pretty thing for many people. This film does not beautify it at all, which I highly praise it for, and if you already think that such practices are unacceptable than your views will go unchanged. What SECRETARY does do is make it bearable, because it gives us people who are sad and alone, and we can relate to that. Lee and Grey are two desperate and lonely people, with physical pain, sexual anger and frustration, and mental confusion trapped, screaming below the surface. In many ways it is similar to P.T. Anderson's MAGNOLIA, which was a film about people who bottled-up their anger until they exploded. Lee and Grey need some sort of catharsis, they need to break free. No two people I have seen in recent movies are more meant for each other and have meant more to me. SECRETARY is one of 2002's best films.
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