Film Review: Secretary

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Fifty Shades of Grey
– chances are you’ve probably heard of it. Even if you haven’t read the trilogy from cover to cover, given that it is the most viewed trailer of the year so far, I’d be willing to bet anything that, either from genuine interest or a cringing but still fascinated curiosity, that you’ve seen the Beyoncé-dubbed sneak peek of its upcoming film adaptation. My point being, love it or loathe it, you can’t escape it. The Fifty Shades phenomenon has suddenly thrust the BDSM lifestyle into the public stratosphere, to varying degrees of opinion. However, there is a film made a good seven years before E.L James had even thought up the risqué escapades of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, which explored such a sexual lifestyle in a far more profound and interesting way.

The film I am referring to is Secretary – a daring, provocative tale, with a painfully honest and unique romance at its heart. The film’s main protagonist, Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a troubled and sensitive girl who struggles to find herself when she is pushed back into the real world after spending time rehabilitating in hospital, following an incident in which she self-harmed. Though this is a film that’s subject is in all truth hard to fully empathise with given its unorthodox nature, Lee is a surprisingly relatable character. She is socially awkward, shy and unsure of the conventions of life. At the beginning of this film, she is just a young girl from a dysfunctional family, who after a long time sheltered by a clinical bubble, is nervous and a little apprehensive about going out there and being someone. But, that all changes when she applies to be Secretary to the mysterious eccentric, Mr E. Edward Grey.

That’s right – Christian was not the first Mr Grey to have a penchant for dominance. But James Spader’s E. Edward is far from the debonair, smooth-talking hunk that Fifty Shades presents.  Nor does he so openly embrace his inbuilt desire to pursue such a sexual lifestyle. In fact, he is just as troubled as Lee, if not more so. One could even describe his relationship with BDSM as tortured. There are no pre-printed contracts of submission with this Mr Grey – he is just as disgusted with himself as he is stimulated by the dominant-submissive relationships he enters into with, what appears to be, a number of his secretaries. He is an eccentric who, despite his outwardly confident and sometimes quite intimidating appearance, reveals to Lee that he is just as shy and sensitive as she is.

Of course, this film cannot explore its subject without a few scenes of a quite startling nature (for some at least) in which the dominant-submissive relationship between Lee and E. Edward grows to ever increasing bounds. But, there is a scene before their relationship gets this intense, that I find to be rather beautiful in the fact that it offers a reason for their need to be this way. It’s not just a fetish that they commit to in order to shock or punish. It is in fact, intensely personal and self-nurturing. After finding Lee on the verge of self-harming at her desk with the sewing kit she carries with her, following a particularly stressful saga regarding typos in a letter, E. Edward tries to encourage Lee out of her shell, and in a moment of quiet sensitivity offers his own insight into Lee’s need for self-harm:

Is it that sometimes the pain inside has to come to the surface, and when you see evidence of the pain inside, you finally know that you’re really here… and then when you watch the wound heal, it’s comforting isn’t it?’

This heartfelt connection between two kindred souls, who both suffer in their own ways and find comfort and pleasure in pain, might seem an unusual thing to ignite such an intense and detached relationship, but actually it makes perfect sense and shows their way of interacting with each other to be so much less tawdry and more profound.  It is when E. Edward instructs her to stop self-harming, that Lee gains the confidence not to do so and to become more independent in the process. Her submission makes her stronger. This is not a story of a dominant man looking for a submissive girl, or trying to somehow bend her to his will. This is a story about two troubled people who in finding each other, learn to become more confident and comfortable with themselves, and what it is they desire. Needless to say, before you watch Fifty Shades, I implore you to give Secretary a go, and gain a different insight into the controversial subject, that because of Fifty Shades is on everybody’s lips.

Secretary can be found on Netflix

This article was written for The Indiependent. It can be found in it’s original form here


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