Movie history is filled with timeless couples that are instantly recognized by their first names. Rose and Jack. Allie and Noah. Lady and the Tramp. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, some couples are planning on a perfect date movie. Fifty Shades Freed will likely have one last moment of relevancy before Black Panther is released nationwide on February 16th. However, before the Fifty Shades series inexplicably went on to make millions of dollars, there was 2002’s Secretary.
Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal in a breakout role as Lee Holloway and James Spader as E. Edward Grey (sound familiar?), Secretary is a romantic comedy with its own take on the “girl meets boy, girl loses boy, will girl and boy reconcile?” formula. Lee has just been released from a mental hospital after a near fatal self-injury and wants to live a normal life. Mr. Grey is a mysterious lawyer who hires Lee as his secretary. Lee and Mr. Grey form a sexually charged relationship that is centered around BDSM, but is just as much about self-discovery. (Now does it sound familiar?)
In order for any romance movie to work the two leads need to have strong chemistry. Gyllenhaal and Spader have an obvious strong connection from their first interaction. The two play off each other beautifully in a variety of situations — it’s almost as if the roles were written specifically for the two. This natural chemistry along with its unique and compelling story engage the audience. Secretary is about two flawed characters who are doing what they can to live normal lives. It quickly becomes clear that they are unable to do it alone. It is impossible to not become invested as the two become closer while at the same time pushing each other away. It’s a strange relationship that’s odd and funny, but Gyllenhaal and Spader never make it seem ridiculous.
Gyllenhaal and Spader turn in strong performances. Gyllenhaal portrays Lee as innocent and almost naive. Lee also suffers from low self-esteem, yet there is also a tenderness and understanding to her. Lee does not just love Mr. Grey, she also wants to help him. Gyllenhaal brings pathos to the character that endears Lee to the audience. Spader’s performance is equally impressive. Simple facials and speaking patterns make it obvious that Mr. Grey is not a dominant and abusive boss. It quickly becomes apparent that Mr. Grey simply does not know how to interact with people. When he says he’s shy despite being a lawyer, it’s clearly not a lie to seduce Lee. When he essentially commands Lee to stop hurting herself, he is not just doing so because he is a controlling person, but because he cares. Spader does a great job of creating a deep character.
Secretary also tells a great story. On the surface, it sounds simple, but this is more than just another love story about two socially awkward people finding each other. Lee has serious problems and is a danger to herself. Mr. Grey cannot function normally in mixed society. The form a deep love that is born out of a literal need for each other. However, it is not about the need for completion, but instead the need for survival. The story is also sexually charged without being overly sexual. The movie features surprisingly little nudity despite its subject matter; instead, the movie uses a knowing glance or a lingering touch between a pinkie and a thumb. It’s sexy and subtle at the same time. The story is powerful and familiar without being overbearing or boring.
Secretary sounds routine and looks distasteful. Instead, it tells a different type of love story in a touching way. The movie is filled with sexual tension, yet sex is almost treated with disdain. Secretary is ultimately about finding love and bettering yourself without losing who you truly are. This is a great film for Valentine’s — or any other — Day.