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2002 - R - 104 Mins.
Director: Steven Shainberg
Producer: Steven Shainberg, Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby
Written By: Erin Cressida Wilson, Steven Shainberg
Starring: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Ann Warren, Stephen McHattie
Review by: Jennie Kermode
Stories of forbidden love have always been popular with film-makers, but it's rare for any film to take on the challenge of depicting a love which a sizeable proportion of its audience might also wish to forbid. 'Secretary' is just that; it has all the elements of traditional movie romance (they meet, they become attached to each other, he can't come to terms with his feelings, she encounters a rival for her affections, etc.), but it's built around a relationship whose foundation is physical pain. It is a great testament to this film that the majority of an initially hostile audience stuck with it and warmed to it as the tale went on; that they went away with some understanding of the strength of the heroine's feelings, if not of her desire itself. It even raised a brief cheer from the formerly disgruntled feminists in the audience when it became clear that it was about the heroine getting what she wanted out of life.

Opening with the wonderful line "I was released from the institution on the day of my sister's wedding", 'Secretary' makes no excuses about the damaged nature of its characters; what's significant is that it doesn't take the easy route and try to blame this on their desire to hit and to be hit - it examines them more intimately aspeople, and demonstrates how people can find solutions in different ways. It never comes across as touristy, and clearly understands its subject matter well; the self-harm which we see in the early stages of the film is honest and realistic, depicted so that even those to whom it was completely unfamiliar seemed to understand something of the heroine's desire for it as a salve for the problems around her. Maggie Gyllenhaal is remarkable in this central role. She never allows the character to be reduced to the sum of her psychological problems, but plays her, even when deep in depression, as a complex, imaginative, sometimes exuberant young woman. This makes it much easier to understand how the attraction between the central characters develops. James Spader is slightly wooden as always, and occasionally cartoonish, but the structure of his role enables him to get away with this for the most part, and it fits well with the picture of a repressed man disturbed by his own desires who is thus inclined to run from anyone he starts to feel attached to. Some critics have called this a 'battle of the sexes', but it's nothing of the sort. It's an intimate portrayal of two people struggling to reach one another despite his fear and her lack of confidence. It's a testament to the need to leave politics out of the bedroom and just look at things honestly once in a while. In this context, it's pleasing that no effort is made to hide the age difference between the two actors, nor to set aside the matter of their working relationship.

'Secretary' is strongest while depicting the growing tensions between its central characters and their various forms of release. Where it encounters more difficulty is in dealing with the standard tropes of the romance film. Though the heroine's frustrations with his lack of compatible desire are presented effectively and with humour, it's hard not to feel sorry for Peter, the childhood sweetheart who hopes to marry her. Ultimately, he's used by both central characters, and that fact that this is largely down to the heroine not having analysed her own feelings doesn't make it any prettier. It's interesting to see this happen in a situation where the usual technique would be to make us dislike the rival - to make him smarmy and conceited; Peter's only failing is that he's not terribly smart. Similarly, we briefly see the departure of a previous secretary who clearly had a strong attachment to the hero. These people are casualties along the road to others' happiness. It sits a little awkwardly with the dash down the road in the wedding dress, but this may be intentional - like 'The Good Girl', this is a story about what happens when the Tinseltown world of Happy Ever After collides with the everyday brutalities of real life.

What's best about this film is that it never panders to its audience, yet it nevertheless makes an effective case for a lifestyle which many viewers will be encountering for the first time. It presents its subject matter on its own terms. Accusations that it is merely pornography can be easily dismissed; there's actually very little flesh on show here compared to the average blockbuster film. The focus is not really sexual, nor even sadomasochistic, but is more about the blossoming of personalities through the exploration of dominant and submissive feelings. Passionate and intelligent, this is a delightful small film deserving of a wider audience.
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

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