'Secretary' is a masochistic, old-fashioned fairy tale

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2003

What is love? Pure chance? Chemistry? A leap of faith, a dark supposition and a deep wish, that one and one could be two?

For secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) - stars of Steven Shainberg's 2002 "Secretary" - love is at least all these things but more. Mr. Grey is an isolated, Type A lawyer who needs to control his environment, but desperately wants to relinquish his compulsion for trust. Ms. Holloway has felt ghost-like and powerless for her whole life and floats pensively and distant - cutting herself with tools just to feel something. Both want to be centered, close to the soil and an Earth with which they've never connected. And sometimes that means putting on a saddle, biting down on a carrot and kneeling on a desktop like a horse.

"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 you're all really here?" Grey asks. "Then when you watch the wound heal, it's comfortable?"

Grey, of course, knows the answer. Because he sees himself in Holloway. And Spader is great here, both unapproachable and fallible.

But honestly, this movie should be called "Gyllenhaal." Her neuroses, her timing, her pace, the way she pulls up her socks - it's brilliant. Her acting is part Buster Keaton, part a product of the John Hughes genre, and in this particular fairy-tale, masochistic but still old-fashioned, she's the perfect Cinderella.

In a diner, alone, she listens to headphones:

"If we can feel extreme pain as well as pleasure, we can have a more meaningful life," a voice says.

And in the end, she finally finds clarity, answers and peace.

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