Lionsgate // 2002 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // October 11th, 2010
I'm your secretary!
"Why do you cut, Maggie? Is it that sometimes the pain inside has to come to the surface and, when you see evidence of the pain inside, you finally know you are really here? Then, when you watch the wound heal, it's comforting, isn't it?"
"That's a way to put it..."
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Adaptation) has relieved her stress since she was little by cutting herself, but her parents had to institutionalize her after an unfortunate incident while washing dishes. Now free from their care, she has no appreciable skills, so she takes a typing class. Through this, she secures a job as a secretary at the law office of E. Edward Grey (James Spader, Boston Legal). She does as well as she can, but for those stressful times she still brings her sewing kit and bandages to keep her company. When Grey catches her mid-cut, he convinces her to give up her blades by introducing her to a new kind of pain, pain that he'll deliver and that will make her feel more alive than she ever has.
Secretary is about wielding control and possessing power over one's own life. Lee has never been in control of anything. Her family has always treated her with kid gloves, she's never had a job, she has never had independence in any way. When she leaves the institution, she is transferred from professional control back into her family's, and of course nothing has changed. Like always, then, she controls the one thing she can: her pain. Understandably, though, she wants more than that, so she gets the job, which grants her a sense of independence she's never had, but it's stressful and she still goes back to the same old tricks. It takes Grey catching her for anything to change, and even then, with the dom/sub relationship he introduces her to, she cedes total control to Grey, who goes as far as to decide how many peas she can eat for dinner. It's strange that such stringent control would open Lee up, but so go neuroses.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is terrific in her first major starring role. The wholesale changes that occur in Lee can partially be attributed to the writing and to surface things, like hair-dos and outfits, but it's really all about her. She changes her posture, the expression on her face, and the tenor of her voice so gradually that, while it's hard to notice the changes, they amount to a whole lot by the end. James Spader is at his usual delicious level of sleaziness. E. Edward Grey is a nicely nuanced character who is closed off and deeply screwed up, but he still has a lot of charm. Lee isn't the first secretary he's put through the paces, but everyone before her ran away screaming about a lawsuit. That Lee stays is reason enough for him to fall in love with her. The trick for Lee is getting him to admit it. Together, Gyllenhaal and Spader have great chemistry and I could imagine no two other people playing these roles.
What I wish, though, is for a pretty film like this to receive a solid Blu-ray treatment, but Lionsgate has failed me. The transfer would barely be average in standard definition; in Hi-Def, it's a huge disappointment, bordering on awful. There's grain everywhere and more digital noise than I've ever seen on Blu-ray. If the scene is fairly dark, the colors look okay, but the brighter a shot gets, the more the grain takes over the image. Very unfortunate. The sound is a fair bit better, but all that really means is it features a standard 5.1 surround mix with the rear channels doubled up to make it 7.1. It's a fine mix; the extra speakers add nothing, but the dialog and sound effects are perfectly clear. For extras, we have a making-of piece of fluff and a much better audio commentary with the writer and director, in which they detail pretty much every aspect of the production. It's easily the best thing about the disc and, coming from me, that's a pretty sorry statement.
Like Benny and Joon for the cutter set, Secretary is a cute and quirky romantic comedy about two young weirdos who find each other over their mutual love of spanking, whether it's giving it out or taking it. It takes the subject matter seriously, and is a darker romcom than most, but still remains sweet through the whole thing. Fun performances, a tight script, and quality direction, the only thing I could ask for is a decent Blu-ray release, though that's apparently going one step too far.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Photo Gallery