'Secretary' is ultimately a love story. An unusual and curious type of love story. But a love story nonetheless. It's also quirky, sad, and eccentrically exotic. Most importantly, it's one of the most original tales we've seen in years about discovering true love in the most unsuspecting fashion. And because of this, the coming together of two socially-inept adults feels genuine and honest, even weirdly erotic. This is precisely what director Steven Shainberg was aiming for with his film. I might even go so far as to call it a black romantic comedy, one with a mature theme on dominance and submission.
What makes the film work so well is a script that pays particular attention to its female lead, to how the experience affects her and ironically provides her with a sense of control and empowerment. Taking inspiration from a short story by Mary Gaitskill, our focus throughout the movie's 110-minute runtime is on Lee Holloway, played marvelously by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Just released from an institution, she goes home to find her dysfunctional family in worse shape than when she was committed. She's an extremely shy and timid young woman, who goes back to school and earns a certificate as a typist. She also reunites with a high school friend, Peter (Jeremy Davies), and they start dating.
The narrator here is also the film's star and the title character. We learn about her as things occur and relate directly to her. So, hiding beneath the love story — her love story — lies a journey of self-discovery. We are witness to this, to how a unique fantasy lifestyle frees her from the chaos of so-called "normal" life. Her being told to walk home through the park one day is just one small revelation of this very idea. Typically, Lee is a tragically broken person, a cutter as she is later referred, an individual who is incredibly insecure and self-doubting. But a lifestyle of rigid commands and willing dominance ironically gives her the confidence she needs.
We get to know her boss, E. Edward Grey (James Spader), also, from her point of view, from the things that happen around him and as Lee sees them happen. We don't know much about his law practice, the circumstances behind his divorce, his previous secretaries, or his private life at home. That is, unless she notices something, like the way he runs a very orderly and precise office. There are a few glimpses, however, which allow us to figure him out a bit and slowly realize that these two individuals are perfect for one another. His idiosyncrasies, too, reveal an insecure and anxious man who feels ashamed about his desires. The little self-assurance he does possess he shares with Lee in one very sweet and private moment over hot chocolate.
Director Steven Shainberg does a very fine job maintaining interest and treating his characters and the subject matter with respect. The source of humor in 'Secretary' doesn't come from the lifestyle Lee and Edward learn to accept, but from the quirkiness and oddness of their personalities. Neither the characters nor their relationship ever feel rushed or forced. They eventually come to each other in a natural, but very peculiar way. Their own. What may be seen as taboo by society at large is the very thing which makes them feel good about themselves. It's the thing which makes them perfect for one another.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate Home Entertainment releases 'Secretary' in a standard blue eco-case housing a BD25, Region Free disc. At startup, the Blu-ray commences with two skippable promos for other BD products in the Lionsgate catalog.
Lionsgate Films brings the 'Secretary' to Blu-ray with a very nice 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.78:1). The independent feature has always been a colorful motion picture, and here, the palette is rendered vibrant and bold with richly saturated primaries and healthy-looking skin tones. Although slightly hotter than its previous standard def release, contrast is well-balanced with crisp, clean whites. There are a couple instances of chroma noise and the grain structure can be somewhat inconsistent from one scene to the next, but it's nothing majorly distracting or objectionable. Black levels are, for the most part, accurate and dark with strong shadow delineation, though the image doesn't really standout in any significant way. Definition and resolution are a clear improvement with great fine object detailing and texture. A few soft scenes do tend to creep up in some spots, but overall, the high-def transfer has its moments and this is a definite upgrade from its DVD counterpart.
Lionsgate also attaches a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that does a surprisingly good job at bringing the movie to life. Although not the type of material to bring down the house, the lossless mix makes attractive use of the rears to enhance the soundfield. They're not always active, since the majority of the film takes place indoors, but discrete effects during certain exterior scenes are utilized to create ambience. The score is where the sound design impresses most as the music of Angelo Badalamenti ('Mulholland Drive,' 'The City of Lost Children') spreads across the soundstage with terrific clarity and clean dynamics and moves into the background to fill the listening area. Of course, 'Secretary' is a character-driven film, so vocals are well-prioritized, with clear, intelligible delivery which accurately reflects the emotional inflections of each actor. Low bass is also adequate for a movie of this genre. In the end, the erotic drama sounds as strong as it likely ever can on Blu-ray.
For this Blu-ray edition of 'Secretary,' Lionsgate ports over the same set of special features from the 2003 DVD release.
With its quirky weirdness, 'Secretary' is an indie film about one of the most unusual love stories we've seen in years, with a dominance and submission theme at its center. With terrific performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, the film offers a more genuine and honest portrayal of love than most of the films often billed as a romantic comedies. This Blu-ray edition of the movie comes with a strong audio and visual presentation which fans will appreciate, but the same set of supplements is carried over. All things considered, the package comes recommended for those already familiar with the story, and it also makes an entertaining rental for those in the mood for an original romantic comedy.