A young woman, recently released from a mental hospital, gets a job as a secretary to a demanding lawyer, where their employer-employee relationship turns into a sexual, sadomasochistic one.A young woman, recently released from a mental hospital, gets a job as a secretary to a demanding lawyer, where their employer-employee relationship turns into a sexual, sadomasochistic one.A young woman, recently released from a mental hospital, gets a job as a secretary to a demanding lawyer, where their employer-employee relationship turns into a sexual, sadomasochistic one.
As she's released from an institution back into the world, she takes her first job as secretary to lawyer E. Edward Grey, played by James Spader. From then on, the movie explores their relationship and how it affects Lee, taking her from the quiet, self-damaging wallflower into the determined and strong woman she becomes.
The film's use of S&M in the relationship between Lee and Mr. Grey makes it a bit controversial, but it's not really the focus here. The idea of Lee as the submissive and Mr. Grey as the dominant have little to do with their sexuality and everything to do with their personality issues.
Lee can't handle extreme emotion without resorting to pain, because she can't take control of her own life. What she sees in Mr. Grey is love - absolute love, the likes of which she can't find with her fiance Peter (Jeremy Davies). That love allows her to give him the power of her pain - by doing that, she's finding something worthy to focus on instead of the nothingness of her sewing kit and iodine.
Mr. Grey, for his part, is a man who can't deal with anything except in his own ordered, regimented way. He cares for his orchids but little else, and the steps he takes with Lee open up his wary heart. He's slower to develop than she is, and to take the final steps towards a real, lasting relationship, he has to be dragged there by the force of Lee's own will.
The key to this film - and S&M relationships in general - is that Lee (the submissive) has all the power, not Mr. Grey (the dominant). She sets the terms by which the relationship will be conducted, seemingly for the first time in her entire life (including the relationships with her family). Lee finds love and desire in Mr. Grey, and pursues it while healing her own shattered psyche in the process.
Maggie Gyllenhall is luminous here. She can say more with a facial expression than most can in a Shakespearean soliloquy. She gives herself completely over to the part, without a wink or a nudge that she's just kidding, or thinks any part of this is silly. She becomes Lee Holloway, which is the best compliment you can give an actor. Spader, for his part, follows in a long string of oddballs, but doesn't go over the top, as he could have been tempted to do. This is Maggie's movie, and he supports it and plays off it well.
Rating: 8/10, based on the strong performance of Maggie Gyllenhall and the character of Lee Holloway, but nocked down due to a poorly-constructed finale that just doesn't fit with the rest of the film. Highly recommended.
- Apr 14, 2003