It's no surprise to discover director Steven Shainberg checked out Mike Leigh's canon prior to shooting Secretary. As with experiencing Leigh's film, the more we watch Secretary's cast of oddballs going through their quirky paces, the more we find an alarming resemblance to ourselves, neither ciphers nor caricatures, but a deeply irrational bunch, prone to the usual hang-ups and desires.
Sensibly, Secretary, based on a short story by literary bad girl Mary Gaitskill, wears its otherness lightly: if S&M no longer packs much of a punch in the taboo stakes (except among tittering Hollywood execs) this one's less concerned with the forensics than the people and motives therein, the harnesses and handcuffs being mere hooks to hang a touchingly funny love story on - perhaps the first mainstream (ish) film to do so.
Needing to feel useful again following her release from a psychiatric hospital, and prone to gouging her legs, Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) applies to be a secretary for the computer-loathing Mr Grey (Spader), who intermittently punishes her typing errors with hearty thwacks to the backside - until she comes to depend on them. Love begins to bloom. "We can't go on like this 24 hours a day," pleads Grey in petrified self-denial, aghast at discovering his soul mate by accident. But they must - if these unlikely lovebirds are to have any kind of future.
As Holloway, Gyllenhall is a revelation, her 2003 Golden Globe nomination testifying to an astonishingly textured performance: sexy, fragile, and childlike all at once, and pretty much acting everyone off the screen (including Spader, in low-key mode, an extension of his sex, lies & videotape persona). The closing magic-realist flourishes only add an enchanting dimension to this romantic fairy-tale.
In a nutshell: Not just a sympathetic treatment of a mildly taboo subject, but above all, a warm dissection of the nature of love, its rituals and power games.
By Ali Catterall