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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 4th 2003:

‘Now the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum – what might be right for you, might not be right for some.’ So wrote Al Burton, Gloria Loring, and Alan Thicke in the lyrics of the theme tune to the TV show Diff’rent Strokes, and the same sentiment gets heartfelt expression in Steven Shainberg’s slightly unorthodox new romantic comedy-drama Secretary.

With a cast list that screams ‘high quality indie flick’, this stars Maggie Gyllenhaal from Donnie Darko as Lee, an awkward young woman living in her sister’s shadow. Partly, one suspects, to escape from her overbearing parents (Leslie Ann Warren and Stephen McHattie), she learns to type and gets a job with eccentric lawyer Edward Grey (the ever-reliable James Spader). Gradually, the relationship between Lee and her boss deepens and intensifies until she has choose between him and her nice but geeky fiancé Peter (Jeremy Davies)…

It sounds a bit run-of-the-mill, doesn’t it? Yes, but this is Two Weeks Notice as directed by either David Cronenberg or the Marquis de Sade. The rather offbeat nature of this film is signposted from the first scene, where a cheerful Lee goes about her office duties, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she is manacled to a yoke. As the story unfolds, we learn of her pathological self-harm problems – cutting and burning her arms and legs. Her involvement with Grey only really begins when he ‘liberates’ her from her need to do this to herself by putting her on a strict regimen of spanking, submissiveness, and, er, lots of other things I can’t go into much detail about in a family newspaper.

The subject matter is quite intense and this is an occasionally explicit film, but the script and direction have a wit and lightness of touch that keep it from being sleazy or pornographic. And a lot of credit must also go to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who gives a subtle and quite brave performance which makes it quite clear that Lee is far from an oppressed victim or sex object – she’s a woman slowly coming to terms with an understanding of what she really wants out of life, and an equal participant in her relationship with Grey. James Spader, a very fine actor who seems happy to work outside mainstream cinema, is equally good in what’s if anything an even trickier role. He takes a character whose mood seems to alternate between reptilian obsessiveness and libidinous distraction, and makes him weirdly vulnerable and endearing.

There is a sense, though, in which the film compensates for its more extreme elements. Rather than the spartan flat-packed limbo that so many offices these days consist of, Grey and Lee work in a warm and vibrant set of rooms complete with art deco stylings and wood panelling – then again this may be making a virtue of the necessity of Grey’s unusual working practices (this is the only lawyer in modern America who doesn’t use a word processor – a crucial plot point). The film’s structure, while a bit twisted and slow to get going, is fundamentally that of many female-led romances – girl starts job, falls for boss, finally he notices her, etc. I’m not sure whether such conventionality is entirely compatible with the film’s subversive message, and the clash between them may be the cause of a brief wobble near the end where the story threatens to unravel entirely. But the movie redeems itself almost straight away, by exploding into a lush and erotic romanticism of remarkable power: more so than any more conventionally-styled movie I can remember.

For, at its heart, this is quite a warm and sensitive film, but one that’s not afraid to make its’ point. Freedom of choice is a fundamental right and one to be valued, but some people are at their happiest when freely surrendering it. The film anticipates objections to this by including a scene where Lee encounters a far-from-impressed feminist, but on the whole it argues its case wittily and persuasively. Secretary is a funny and perceptive adult fairytale, and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

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