At a first glance, the plot may seem like hardly more than a fetishist's b-film delight: a young woman takes a job as a secretary for a domineering lawyer, and their relationship quickly morphs into sexual sadomasochism. However, Shainberg, who liberally adapted 'Secretary' for the screen from a Mary Gaitskill short story, manages to create a panoply of dysfunction and depth in his characters that transcends the surface overtones of B&D and S&M.
Lee Holloway (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), the title character, is an emotionally unstable young woman fresh out of a mental institution. On her first day out, her father's alcoholic outburst at her statuesque older sister's wedding proves to be too much for her, and she immediately lapses back into her private rituals of self-mutilation.
In an attempt at a "normal" life, she seeks a her first job as a secretary in the small law office of E. Edward Grey (played by none other than the quintessential '80s wasp, James Spader). After a hilariously awkward interview (Shainberg punctuates the film with consistently brilliant touches of darkly comedic moments), Lee is offered the position. Grey himself is uneasily coming to terms with his divorce from a tyrannical ex-wife, whose photograph he still keeps in his desk. His constant humiliation of his new secretary as a result of her typing errors, slightly unkempt appearance, and meek mannerisms turns into a calculated spanking one morning, after he has ordered her to bend over his desk and read aloud the letter she has just typed for him, riddled with mistakes. Despite her initial shock, Lee enjoys the experience, which comes across through a subtlety in direction that is skillfully managed in such a powerful scene.
The relationship between Lee and Grey quickly intensifies in kink as well as psychological complexity, building up to a frantic (ahem) climax. Gyllenhaal's performance is masterful; her charming smile only halfway masks her deep emotional (and physical) scars. Meanwhile, she effortlessly brings a comic spark to Lee as she throws herself wholeheartedly into her newfound passion for being a sexual submissive. Spader hasn't given this sophisticated a performance since 'Sex, Lies & Videotape', and has truly bounced back after a decade of largely forgettable films. His E. Edward Grey is all-at-once disgusting, endearing and pathetic. Both actors bring a frustrated passion to their roles that would be nearly impossible to duplicate. There are several good turns from the supporting cast as well, including Lesley Ann Warren as Lee's loving yet clingy mother, and Jeremy Davies as her befuddled boyfriend.
Steven Shainberg's approach to his subject matter is refreshing, and his treatment of bondage, discipline and master/servant relationships is even-handed. The film is complimented by an appropriately quirky score by David Lynch favorite, Angelo Badalamenti. Any hopeless romantic jaded by theaters full of 'Autumn in New York's and 'Sweet Home Alabama's will doubtlessly find 'Secretary' a welcome breath of fresh air.