"Secretary" is certainly not your average love story, but the love it portrays is, quite surprisingly (and largely thanks to two outstanding lead performances) more believable than most romantic comedies. The film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee Halloway, a shy young woman who has just been released from a mental hospital. Once she gets out from the hospital, things quickly return to normal; her father is abusive to her mother and an alcoholic, while she tries to not continue cutting herself to let the pain surface.
Wanting to get out of her house and equally interested in getting her life together, Lee finds employment at the office of lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader). While she has no work experience, she can type really fast, which seems to be enough for the lawyer. But, he senses something more about her. Aside from an array of potentially illegal questions he asks during their interview, he finally looks her over and states, "There's something about you. You're...closed." She admits he's right.
Spader's character is dominant and obsessive, at first simply sternly scolding Lee for any typing errors or things he doesn't like about how she presents herself. He tells her that she will no longer cut or injure herself ("You're over that now, it's in the past.") and, for the first time, she really puts it all to an end. While this may seem like a rather unbelievable cure, she does it because she feels like she's recieved an order from someone who finally sees and understands her. On the other hand, when Spader's character sees Lee doing laundry with an old boyfriend (Jeremy Davies), he's angered, but largely at the fact that he just might lose her.
When she makes a mistake the next time, things change. Grey has her read the letter with the errors while he spanks her. And she likes it. While the two go about their business (she walks around and does office chores with her hands tied to some sort of bar behind her head, but manages to do so with grace and ease), eventually Grey decides things can't continue the way they are, not because of anything but the fact that he's scared of how she really feels about him. Saddened, Lee continues to try and get attention, but doesn't. Eventually, when she storms into his office to confront him, he figures out one more trial for her, while he finally tries to confront his own feelings.
Director Stephen Shainberg, working from a screenplay adaptation by Erin Cressidy Wilson of Mary Gatskill's short story, could have steered this film wrong in any number of ways. The film doesn't seek comedy from how it portrays the characters, which is certainly enjoyable, given this is certainly a film where the film could have sought humor from embarassment. Instead, the film respects, cares about and doesn't judge the characters, which is certainly essential if it seeks to portray sincere (although unusual to some) love, which it successfully does. The film could have gone way out with the kinky stuff (although that would have likely gotten it an NC-17), or not far enough. The final film walks the boundaries just right, with the rather light tone at times additionally assisting involvement.
The film's one true find though, is Gyllenhaal. Although I doubt the Academy Awards will recognize a film like this one, Gyllenhaal's fearless performance is certainly deserving of awards notice. The actress portrays Lee early in the film in a way that is at once shy but smart and sweet. Her body language is closed off, but there's something about her eyes that suggest otherwise. She handles the quiet moments of the movie wonderfully, while her desire to find the love she seeks is unexpectedly moving. She is the heart of this movie and, as unusual a love as the one she's found may be considered, she sincerely convinces not only to care about her, but that she's really found happiness. It's a brilliant, fierce performance that I really hope will take Gyllenhaal from supporting performances (such as her nice little turn in the otherwise awful "40 Days and 40 Nights") to starring in her own features.
She's matched quite well with Spader, who manages to take parts from previous characters and add some new elements for Grey. While he doesn't have to carry the movie in the way that Gyllenhaal does, he does have to have chemistry with her and he certainly does - the two make an oddly electric screen pairing.
For a smaller indie, this is also a very nice looking picture. Angelo Badalamenti (who has worked on most of David Lynch's pictures) offers a score that seems fresh, but still has Lynch-ian elements in the mix. Steven Fierberg's vivid cinematography gives the picture an interesting appearance and solid compositions. Production design, art direction and other aspects of the movie are also terrific. I loved the little touch outside the Spader character's office, where a "Secretary Wanted" sign with lights hangs much in the same way a "vacancy" sign hangs outside a hotel. The office's slightly creepy, slightly warm look also is inspired.
"Secretary" is certainly a tough picture to get right, but I'm impressed how well director Shainberg blended a controversial subject with elements of a conventional romance. It's an excellent film and, while I must include the "it's not for everyone" speech, it's still certainly worth seeing for those who are interested.