Directed by Steven Shainberg
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 111 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English
Subtitles: English, Spanish
MSRP: $ 14.98
Release Date: July 15, 2008
Review Date: July 9, 2008
A dark comedy focusing on two damaged individuals feeling one another out (pun unintended) in an unusual boss-employee scenario, Steven Shainberg’s Secretary is certainly provocative and unusual plus it features characters not usually seen in mainstream films. The comic element of the screenplay is rather hit and miss, but these are people that one certainly won’t forget any time soon.
Released from a sanitarium after a stay for nervous collapse, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) moves back home to a dysfunctional family of clinging mother (Lesley Ann Warren), alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie), and newly married sister and husband living on the grounds (Amy Locane, Oz Perkins). Determined to get a job to get her out of the house, she takes a secretarial course at a local community college, wins an award as the fastest typist, and offers herself for employment in the legal office of E. Edward Grey (James Spader). A quiet-spoken man with odd hobbies, a sheaf of red Sharpie pens, and an interest in dominating his employees, Grey hires Lee and immediately begins molding her to fit his office needs better: being more assertive on the telephone, being more careful with her typing, dressing better, and, most especially, becoming his sexual submissive in role playing adventures they both seem to enjoy. But the idyll can’t last forever, and that’s going to prove upsetting especially for Lee who is enjoying the first real attention for being a woman that she’s ever known.
The quirky script by Erin Cressida Wilson is based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, and its explorations of the psychologically injured Lee (who has a history of cutting herself to experience and revel in pain) is not a primary source of joviality here. It’s the deadpan acceptance that Spader and Gyllenhaal portray in their eccentric sexual games that earns the film some feedback on the laugh meter. Lee’s obsession, of course, turns almost deadly earnest later, however, and the laughter dries up again only to be found in a final “love offering” to her beloved near the film’s end. Thus, the film’s rangy tide of emotional expressions makes it difficult to place any label at all on it.
Maggie Gyllenhaal earned the lion’s share of the critical praise that met this film in 2002, and her performance truly is a tour de force from deeply scarred and needy to blissfully alive and fulfilled. She’s asked to do things in the film far from the norm for most young actresses, and she faces it all (including full frontal nudity) with a daring composure and aplomb. James Spader’s insular lawyer is an interesting performance, too, but less exacting physically and more limited emotionally than Gyllenhaal’s character. There are many more layers to this man than we’re allowed to see, and one wishes the script had gone there in more depth. Jeremy Davies does well with Peter, Lee’s “normal” boy friend who’s offering the kind of safe suburban life (and unfulfilling sex life) that would generally have been the route of many girls like Lee. Davies has the only other character in the film who gets enough screen time to portray a character we’d like to get to know better. All of the other interesting inhabitants of this world get short shrift in the final screenplay.
More intricate character study than movie comedy, Secretary is one indie film that offers a nonpareil examination of some people striving to find their destinies and inching their ways through trial and error to that ultimate end.
The film is presented in a very nice 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Color saturation is particularly striking in this transfer with some really excellent flesh tones. Sharpness is better in close-ups than in medium or long shots, and there is some slight line twitter, but most of the time, the disc offers a solid image that’s very appealing. The film has been divided into 24 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is more than adequate for this talky comedy-drama. Angelo Badalamenti’s music is the only sound that resonates in the front left and right channels, and it sounds just right, never drowning out the dialog which is firmly situated in the center channel.
The disc offers an audio commentary by director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson that’s very low key, but the pair keep the stream of conversation going throughout the running time of the movie. Sometimes, they do describe what’s on the screen too much, but it always leads to an interesting anecdote about the filmmaking process. It’s by far the best extra on the disc.
A behind the scenes featurette features interviews with director Shainberg and both leading actors talking about the allure of the story and their working relationship. This full frame (nonanamorphic) feature runs 7 minutes.
The original theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs 2 ¼ minutes.
A photo gallery consisting of 14 pictures (both production shots and stills from the movie) are offered in a step-through interactive section of the disc.
A quirky film focusing on a dominant-submissive sexual relationship makes Secretary not your everyday film comedy. For those adventurous enough to try it, you might find it a reasonably compelling entertainment.