Explicit content alert
So in reviewing Stephen Stainberg’s 2002 film ‘Secretary,’ I am reviewing something a little different. Secretary is an erotic thriller in much the same vein as 50 Shades of Grey. I had the misfortune of watching 50 Shades and I would agree with many reviewers who say that not only is Secretary cinematically superior to 50 shades, but also a more accurate depiction of BDSM. I was initially hesitant about reviewing this film because of the risqué nature of its content, but I felt that as a reviewer I need to stay objective and not be concerned about the content matter of a film. Furthermore, modern society has become so desensitised to sex, due to the proliferation and over-saturation of it that I think that more should be done to educate people about lesser known sexual practices, rather than feign ignorance of their existence. I guess this is perhaps the only good thing that came out of 50 Shades of Grey. I will be comparing the two throughout the review, but I’ll save any detailed critique of 50 Shades for a proper review
What’s it about: Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway a ditzy, nervous and socially awkward young woman with a history of self-abuse. Upon her release from a psychiatric institution, she becomes the secretary of the attorney Edward Grey (James Spader) and the two then begin a BDSM style relationship.
The Good: I liked certain elements of Holloway’s and Grey’s characters. I felt that Holloway was suitably nervous and insecure about the relationship, but also has the curousity and initiative to research BDSM. This in stark contrast to Ana Steele whom despite being told by Christian to research BDSM doesn’t have the initiative to google what a buttplug is. Edward Grey wasn’t anywhere near as creepy, controlling, stalkerish, unethical or rapey as Christian Grey. I also really liked how Secretary focused much more on the romantic side of Edward and Lee’s relationship, rather than the physical side of it. I felt that 50 Shades concentrated so much about showing off explicit, kinky sex that it got a little off-putting at times. Secretary isn’t like that at all and the sexual content is much more subtle and implicit. The one time that complete sexual intercourse was portrayed was an awkward, comedic affair between Holloway and her sexually vanilla boyfriend Peter. I also really liked how Secretary had Holloway’s internal voice narrating it, which I felt 50 Shades lacked.
The Bad: Whilst there were parts of Holloways’ character that I liked, there were also some that I didn’t. Most noticeably, I really didn’t like her treatment of her boyfriend Peter. (Jeremy Davies) Whilst he might be a spineless wimp, he certainly didn’t deserve being cheated or even jilted, which is effectively what Lee does. Whilst Grey does make an explicit point about not having sex with Lee until she is ready, I would still count having your boss spank you or finishing over you, as cheating, or at the very least, wildly inappropriate behaviour. On this note, I think Holloway could have been more hesitant or irritated at her employer’s actions. Regardless of how shy and timid you might be, you would still protest if your boss started spanking you. Whilst I think the film did well in not being explicitly about BDSM sex, I’m not sure whether it went far enough in actually defining what BDSM is. In 50 Shades, there is considerable screentime devoted to the importance of Ana approving her contract and being fully informed of what BDSM actually is and what it entails. As Secretary didn’t mention these aspects at all, I wasn’t entirely sure when Holloway and Grey actually began their BDSM relationship. Although that notwithstanding, I did like the film’s conclusion, where Grey gives appropriate aftercare to Holloway, which Christian Grey doesn’t do to Ana Steele. Finally, after the climax of the film, which I would argue is the slow-motion montage of Holloway doing secretarial tasks in manacles and being spanked, the film’s pace begins to taper off. I argue that the climax of this film came too prematurely and the rest of the film was uninteresting, over-long and thin denouement.
The Ugly: Does Lee Holloway only own the one pair of underwear?
So, I felt quite indifferent about this film. Whilst it is lightyears better than 50 Shades in every regard, it isn’t perfect. Holloway was an annoying, unlikeable character at times and the film isn’t explicit enough in its BDSM themes. If you are going to watch a film of this nature, then don’t be like Ana Steele, take the initiative and do a little research first. A concept like BDSM much like certain books like Ulysses is extensive and complicated and you’re unlikely to fully understand it or be able to fully immerse yourself in it if you don’t know what it’s about beforehand.