When it comes to praising actresses these days, "brave" is a word that gets tossed around a lot. Renee Zellweger was "brave" to sing and dance in Chicago. Julianne Moore was "brave" to tackle tough issues like racism and homophobia in Far From Heaven. Nicole Kidman was "brave" to hide her beauty with a fake nose in The Hours. Please. On a Bravery Scale of 1 to 10, which rates the highest: hoofing in sequins, emoting in color-coordinated '50s regalia, slapping some latex on your face ... or getting on top of a hay-strewn desk and making like a horse (saddle, carrot, and all)? Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. For a truly brave actress, look no further than Secretary's Maggie Gyllenhaal, who takes on a topic few Hollywood actresses would touch with a 10-foot pole S&M-style domination and turns it into a poignantly sweet story about love and enlightenment. With her sad, knowing eyes and slow, impish grin, Gyllenhaal older sister of The Good Girl's Jake Gyllenhaal is the perfect choice to play Lee Holloway. Nervous, isolated, and damaged by years of a painful family life (Dad drinks, Mom and Dad fight all the time), Lee is a "cutter" when the anger and fear and frustration she's afraid to feel become too much for her to bear, she lets them out by cutting herself with one of the many implements she's collected over the years (the inventory of her fancifully decorated "cutting box" looks like a medieval torture kit). When one slice goes a little too deep, Lee's mother (a fluttery Leslie Ann Warren) catches her, and Lee lands in the loony bin. Released just in time for her sister's wedding, Lee tries her best to overcome the urges she can't shake, but it's not until she gets a secretarial job working for attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) that she finds an alternative to her ritual of self-abuse. Lee sees Mr. Grey as her savior he gives her the direction and structure she craves, and she becomes almost slavishly devoted to him. Before long, their dominant-submissive relationship strays outside its "professional" boundaries and spanking, crawling, saddling-up, and any number of other S&M-tinged activities take the place of Lee's cutting sessions. Lee's boyfriend, Peter (a hirsute Jeremy Davies), pales in comparison to her beloved boss; indeed, everything outside of Lee's time at the office seems meaningless to her she finally feels alive and she wants to relish every kinky second of it.
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The twist in Secretary is that Mr. Grey ends up needing Lee as much as she needs him. Convinced that the impulses and desires the two of them share are wrong, Mr. Grey struggles against giving into them, going as far as firing Lee when he sees no other way to kick the habit. But in return for what he has given her the strength and confidence she needs to emerge as a true individual Lee gives Mr. Grey permission to rejoice in their less-than-conventional relationship. As a result, Secretary is ultimately a very tender romance about two lost souls who find each other in the unlikeliest of circumstances. And the film succeeds almost entirely on the strength of its two leads. Yes, director Steven Shainberg offers creative shots and smart allusions (the Little Red Riding Hood bit near the beginning is particularly clever), and Erin Cressida Wilson's script deftly eludes the temptation of going too far over the top. But without Gyllenhaal and Spader, Secretary would still be stuck in the typing pool. Former Brat Packer Spader has had a lock on the title of Creepy Indie It Boy for awhile now (Crash, anyone?), but as Mr. Grey he mixes an air of vague menace with a touching vulnerability you can understand why Lee wants to protect him as much as she fears displeasing him. His chemistry with Gyllenhaal is palpable; in the scenes leading up to the first spanking session, the tension between them grows almost unbearable. Gyllenhaal contributes to that equation as well you can see Lee's emotions ripple across her expressive face as she learns what it's like to feel something without the aid of a knife. Gyllenhaal makes Lee's gradual transformation from a slouchy, sniffly, frumpy nonentity into a poised, graceful, confident woman a wonder to behold; if this is the power of S&M love, it's time to break out the whips and trusses.
Lion's Gate DVD release of Secretary wisely lets the film shine as the disc's centerpiece, offering only a handful of supplements to round things out. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is strong and clear (all the better to enjoy Amy Danger's striking production design), and the English DD 2.0 audio is more than adequate (English and Spanish subtitles also are available). Extras include the trailer which paints the film as more of a lighthearted comedy than a heartfelt romance a photo gallery, a "making-of" featurette (7 min.), and a chatty if not electric commentary track from Shainberg and Wilson. Keep-case.