Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young woman who's just been released from a psychiatric institution. She was committed as a teenager for compulsively hurting herself and the years of treatment haven't had much effect. Moving back in with her family, one of the first things she does is dig out her old sewing kit and set to work cutting her legs again. It's not hard to see where her unhappiness comes from. Life at home is sad and mundane. Her shallow sister (Amy Locane) has just got married and moved into the poolhouse, her father (Stephen McHattie) is drinking heavily and her mother (Lesley Ann Warren) tries to keep Lee safely in sight and the knives under lock and key. The only bright spot in her life is a tentative romance with an old high school friend (Jeremy Davies) whose affections she welcomes, though she's not so sure whether she returns them.
Lee decides she needs to get out of the house so she answers an ad for a secretary placed by a lawyer called Mr Grey (James Spader). Mr Grey is a very strange man to say the least. He acts more like a strict schoolmaster than a boss, criticising every aspect of Lee's appearance and work, circling her typing errors in red ink and slamming the pages down on her desk to be redone. One day, after Lee's made an especially big mess of typing a letter, Mr Grey calls her into his office, orders her to bend over his desk and spanks her, hard. This is probably the point where your average secretary would take a good look at her employment contract, but not Lee. Feeling sexually fulfilled for the first time in her life, she decides to play along with Mr Grey, obeying him as if he were her master and deliberately making mistakes so she'll be called into his office and punished.
The promotional campaign would have you believe Secretary is a kinky sex comedy but, while there are plenty of laughs, that isn't a good description. Nor is it really about steamy eroticism, although if S&M is what floats your boat, you should find it a turn-on. Rather than soft porn, this is a thoughtful look at a misunderstood form of sexuality. It's also a rich psychological drama whose characters have all the depths of real human beings and it's one of those very rare films which doesn't let on where it's going till it's arrived there. It's such a surprise the direction Secretary eventually takes that I'm loathe to say more but what happens is thoroughly satisfying, pleasing and even strangely touching.
I liked the way political correctness is thrown to the wind. This is a film which is unashamedly libertarian in its politics. Bondage and sado-masochism is still a thorny topic even in the 21st century. It's a widespread fetish, perhaps the most popular kink of all. Half of the erotic novels on the shelves of your local Waterstones are about people being tied up and whipped yet it's rarely mentioned in mainstream culture and you won't even find many S&M porn videos in this country because our censors see it as abuse. In Secretary, the script makes it quite clear that Lee is intelligent enough to make her own choices and that she chooses to allow Mr Grey to punish her. A scene in which a feminist tells Lee her submissiveness is an affront to women is played for laughs. Without ever becoming a political tract, Secretary makes a persuasive argument in favour of the right to consent to whatever form of sex you like.
The main reason the film works so well is that the psychology behind Lee's relationship with Mr Grey is so convincing. Secretary takes us into some pretty dark corners of the human mind and so it lives or dies on the work of its two leads. Maggie Gyllenhaal in particular has a tough job. Playing a disturbed woman who does things most people would recoil from, she must make the character sympathetic and her actions comprehensible. She rises to the occasion - I've not seen a better performance yet in 2003. The only explanation for her not getting an Oscar nomination must be the film's subject matter made the Academy queasy. James Spader is also on peak form, malevolently funny in the first half of the film and then coming into his own in the second half when he subtly shows us the man behind Mr Grey. Elsewhere, there's very little to criticise. Flawlessly directed and scripted by, respectively Steven Shainberg and Eva Cressida Wilson (from a short story by Mary Gaitskill), Secretary is one of the bravest, most intriguing and most enjoyable films you'll see this year.