(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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