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James Spader micro manages Maggie Gyllenhaal.

© 2003, Lions Gate
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To find someone to love in a way that feels right for us--that"s what we all hope for. Just what that love may be like we won't know until we're lucky enough to find it. But the really hard part, as "Secretary" (IMDb listing) tells us, may just be living it. In his second feature film, director Steven Shainberg presents us with a beautiful story of an intensity that reverberates to the emotional core, challenging preconceptions in a way that is disturbing as much as it is exhilarating.

Just released from the local mental hospital where she was treated for harming herself, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) applies for a secretarial position in the law office of E. Edward Grey (James Spader). What begins as a rather dull office job--typing, filing, coffee-making--gradually crosses the line of conventionality and evolves into a fragile, quirky intimacy that takes both Lee and the enigmatic but guilt-torn Grey irrevocably into a realm of sexuality that is as freeing for her as it is frightening for him. While Lee relishes her submissive role in the budding sado-masochistic relationship, Grey, though in awe of Lee's complete surrender, cannot overcome the notion of social unacceptability. But knowing that in each other they have finally found someone to love in a way that feels right, Lee is determined to fight for a chance to live their unconventional love.

Anything but a tacky "Yeah baby, spank me!" film, "Secretary" won the Special Jury Prize for Originality at Sundance 2002 and might just prove to be the big break for phenomenally talented Maggie Gyllenhaal, who delivers an incredible performance. She's matched beautifully by an impeccable James Spader.

Spader, whose credits include "Pretty in Pink" and "Sex, Lies & Videotape," and Gyllenhaal, most noted to date for her role in Richard Kelley's fascinating "Donnie Darko," have a tangible, electric and alluring chemistry. Combined with Shainberg's spot-on direction and a supporting cast that includes Jeremy Davies ("Saving Private Ryan") as Lee's ultra-conventional sometime-boyfriend Peter, this unique love story is brought to life brilliantly. Extraordinary, fearless and powerful, "Secretary" feels exactly right.

Filmfodder Grade: A+

A version of this review originally appeared in Lock Magazine.

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