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Steven Shainberg
James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren
Writing Credits:
Erin Cressida Wilson

A young woman gets a job as a secretary to a demanding lawyer, where their employer-employee relationship turns into a sexual, sadomasochistic one.

Box Office:
$4 million.
Opening Weekend:
$182,306 on 11 screens.
Domestic Gross:
Rated R

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 111 min.
Price: $9.99
Release Date: 10/5/2010

• Audio Commentary With Director Steven Shainberg and Writer Erin Cressida Wilson
• “Behind the Secretary” Featurette
• Photo Gallery


-LG OLED65C6P 65-Inch 4K Ultra HD Smart OLED TV
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-Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player
-Chane A2.4 Speakers
-SVS SB12-NSD 12" 400-watt Sealed Box Subwoofer


Secretary [Blu-Ray] (2002)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 18, 2019)

Not surprisingly, marketing folks try to promote movies in the most positive light possible, and that means they scour the Earth for chipper blurbs about even the most widely panned flicks. I believe that every movie is someone’s favorite, so somewhere on the planet they can dig up a happy word from a person with at least marginal credentials.

In regard to 2002’s Secretary, it wasn’t too tough for the PR people to locate praise for the film, as many critics liked it. Indeed the original DVD case includes five different quotes that laud the flick.

However, the studio made an odd choice for the one that appeared on the back of the DVD’s case. Look there and you’ll find this statement from Manohla Dargas of the Los Angeles Times: “A gently bent old-fashioned romance”.

”Gently bent”? “Old-fashioned romance”?

When I hear “old-fashioned”, I think of holding hands and shared lemonade on the front porch swing. I definitely don’t conjure images of spankings and masochism. Secretary offers an old-fashioned romance only if your bloodline includes the Marquis de Sade.

Secretary focuses on mousy Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal). After a brief glimpse of things to come, we flash back to six months earlier and see Lee as she emerges from hospitalization at a mental institution. Lee engages in self-mutilation, and apparently one time a few months earlier, she had an “accident”, so her parents placed her at this establishment.

Lee comes out on the day of her sister’s wedding. There we meet her drunken father (Stephen McHattie) and abused mother (Lesley Ann Warren) as well as her prospective boyfriend Peter (Jeremy Davies).

After some glimpses of Lee’s dull life and her self-mutilation, we see that she decides to take secretarial classes. She does well at these and applies for a job with lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader).

Oddly, the quirky barrister tries to shy her away from the job, as he tells her how dull the work is. Lee states that she wants it anyway and takes it.

We soon see a tougher side of Mr. Grey, as mild humiliation of Lee via menial and slightly degrading tasks initially arouses him. She warms to these activities, and she slowly begins to become more assertive.

In the meantime, Lee dates Peter, though her heart doesn’t seem to be in it. When Grey sees the pair on a date, he becomes angry, and this eventually leads to an incident where he spanks Lee on the job as punishment for typing errors.

She really digs the abuse, and the pair begin a warped romance of sorts. Lee continues to go out with Peter as well, though she clearly favors the more unusual affair with Mr. Grey. The rest of the movie follows the course of the love triangle.

Secretary clearly won’t be for everyone, mainly due to the graphic nature of its content. Actually, there’s not a lot of actual violence, but the concept of a young woman who so gleefully embraces domination and abuse will obviously not sit well with many. We see some sexually provocative material as well, including quite a few masturbation sequences.

On the surface, it may seem like Secretary sends the message that women want to be controlled and treated poorly. However, it’s a mistake to take that from the film.

All I got from it was that this very psychologically messed up woman needed this kind of domination. The movie comes painfully close to endorsing the behavior, but it doesn’t quite get there, so I wouldn’t generalize the theme to a wider degree.

The material seems easier to take due to the stellar performance of its lead actress, as Gyllenhaal develops the character in a very natural and smooth manner. Lee easily could have become cartoony and forced, but in Gyllenhaal’s hands, she seems vivid and lively.

Gyllenhaal makes Lee convincing during her self-injurious and mousy stage, and she develops the role’s stronger elements in a neat and believable manner. Lee doesn’t just suddenly go from quiet and introverted to aggressive and self-assured without any rhyme or reason, so Gyllenhaal’s realistic and vibrant performance almost single-handedly makes the film work.

Spader and the others also offer good work, but this remains Gyllenhaal’s flick to win or lose. Without her, Secretary might have fallen flat, for not much else about it seems all that compelling.

The story moves reasonably well and director Steven Shainberg doesn’t harm the piece in any noticeable way, but none of the other factors appear terribly compelling either. Happily, at least he keeps it from veering into movie of the week territory, as the material never turns sappy. Shainberg also reins in the action and doesn’t make it self-consciously idiosyncratic.

Secretary probably won’t become a star-making vehicle for Maggie Gyllenhaal, as it’s too small and quirky to reach much of an audience. However, her work her definitely shows her skills and helps her differentiate herself from her better-known brother Jake. A quirky and generally compelling film, Secretary provides an unusual but intriguing experience as a whole.

The Disc Grades: Picture C / Audio B- / Bonus C+

Secretary appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This became a drab presentation.

Sharpness varied and tended to seem mediocre. At best, the image offered reasonably good clarity, but it never seemed especially concise, and more than a few soft shots materialized. I saw no jaggies or moiré effects, but light edge haloes popped up through parts of the film.

As for print issues, Secretary appeared grainier than most modern flicks, especially during early scenes. However, this looked like something that stemmed from the original photography and didn’t impress me as a transfer concern. Otherwise, I noticed a few small specks.

Despite the subject matter, Secretary displayed a surprisingly bright and varied palette. The disc displayed these tones in an erratic fashion – at times, the hues seemed perky, but other instances showed oddly flat colors.

Black levels seemed fairly deep and rich, but shadow detail was somewhat more erratic. This meant some low-light sequences came across as moderately opaque. In the end, this was a mediocre transfer that could have been better.

As for the DTS-HD MA 7.1 of Secretary, it seemed surprisingly good for a character drama of this sort. Nothing here stood out as impressive, but the soundscape opened up the material better than anticipated.

Some of this came from music, which used the various channels in a pretty involving manner. Effects had less to do, but they tended to display a nice sense of place, and a few scenes – such as at the wedding reception – broadened horizons in a satisfying manner.

Audio quality seemed good. Speech sounded natural and distinct, and I noticed no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility.

Effects didn’t have a lot to do here, but they appeared acceptably accurate and concise. Music also appeared clear and smooth, as those pieces were fairly bright and showed nice low-end response. Though this never became a memorable track, it did well for the subject matter.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the original DVD release? The Blu-ray’s DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix replaced the DVD’s Dolby 2.0 track, and the DTS-HD version showed more life. Neither dazzled, but the DTS-HD edition was more engaging and accurate.

Visuals also showed improvements, as the Blu-ray looked tighter and more natural. Even though the Blu-ray disappointed, it still represented a moderate step up over the DVD.

Only a few extras come along with Secretary. We start with an audio commentary from director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson, both of whom sit together for this running, screen-specific piece. A low-key offering, the pair provide a moderately informative but fairly average commentary.

Shainberg dominates, as Wilson chips in infrequently. The pair cover a mix of issues related to the film, most of which hit on typical issues. We hear about locations and art design, working with the actors, alterations made from the script, and various challenges.

We also get a little analysis of the flick and its characters. Unfortunately, much of the track just covers the usual happy talk, as the pair tell us how great everything is.

Shainberg really seems to be in love with his movie, and this tone influences much of the piece. It becomes rather tiresome at times, especially during the flick’s second half.

Overall, the commentary provides some decent information, but it doesn’t seem to be especially useful. It comes across as a decent track but not one that adds a lot to the listener’s understanding of the film.

Next we find a seven-minute, nine-second featurette called Behind the Secretary. This provides sound bites with director Shainberg plus actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader.

Though a little more detailed than the standard puff piece, “Behind” doesn’t really give us much depth. We learn a bit about the actors, visual design, and a couple other elements, but don’t expect a lot of useful information here.

We also discover a Photo Gallery. It includes 13 stills, most of which show publicity shots. None of these seem very interesting.

Note that the Blu-ray drops the trailer from the DVD and also omits one picture from the “Photo Gallery”. The image in question offered a sexy shot of Gyllenhaal – the only appealing still in the gallery! Maybe Gyllenhaal wasn’t happy it appeared on the DVD, as otherwise I can’t figure out why the Blu-ray would drop the picture.

A perverse but fairly interesting love story, Secretary does little exceptional as a film. However, a dazzling turn by its lead actress helps make the piece much more compelling than otherwise may have occurred. The Blu-ray offers reasonably good audio as well as mediocre visuals and a smattering of supplements. I like the movie but the Blu-ray seems lackluster.

To rate this film, visit the DVD review of SECRETARY

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