Maggie Gyllenhaal's first starring role provides her with the opportunity to explore a rather demanding character, which she performs with depth and humor in Secretary. As Lee Holloway, she portrays a young woman with a strange addiction to pain, but remains engaging and easily empathized with. Lee's endeavors in the "real" world, after a youth with an emotionally disruptive family life, prove to be a bizarre representation of one's willingness to comply, in order to fulfill one's desires. By taking a secretarial job with E. Edward Grey (James Spader), she learns that taking orders is not only within her capacity as an employee, but in fact, serves a higher purpose for the whole of her person. Gyllenhaal makes magic as Lee, with a blatantly erotic upward gaze somehow innocent enough to leave both Mr. Grey and the audience wondering whether Lee -- or Gyllenhaal herself -- is aware of just how hot she really is. Lee becomes both emotionally and physically charged by her encounters with Spader's Mr. Grey, who issues commands in an unbearably sexy low voice. Spader's attractive forcefulness equals Gyllenhaal's more vulnerable role in its effectiveness of characterization. Tenaciously exacting, Mr. Grey's affection for obedience turns darkly appealing when sexy Spader ruthlessly delivers his demands. This strong opposition might suggest issues of stereotypical gender roles, but the film does not presume to make generalizations. Instead, it speaks specifically of the circumstances within one unique relationship that will define itself by the needs of the two individuals involved, however disturbing they may be. Within the deep mental and emotional issues of a somewhat alternative relationship, director Steven Shainberg creates a careful balance of mood using well-timed humor to prevent getting bogged down by the severity of the story. Meanwhile, the film pushes the boundaries of the R rating by use of implication. The things it doesn't show explicitly -- like masturbation -- are more than hinted at, while not officially breaking any limits. Taking metaphor to the extreme, Secretary allows access to the laughter and the pain of love in raw form.
There's a word for an actress who can go from nervous to winsome to raunchy to romantic in a heartbeat and get you to adore her the whole time. The word is star.
Most love stories are bland and generalized. This one takes you deep inside the dance. David Edelstein
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