Secretary (2002)

If you create a user account, you can add your own review of this DVD

Released 4-Nov-2003

Cover Art

This review is sponsored by

Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio & Animation
Audio Commentary-Steven Shainberg (Director) and Erin Cressida Wilson(Writer)
Theatrical Trailer
Featurette-Behind The Scenes
Trailer-Grownups, Roger Dodger
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 2002
Running Time 106:35
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Ads Then Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Steven Shainberg

Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring James Spader
Maggie Gyllenhaal
Jeremy Davies
Lesley Ann Warren
Amy Locane
Stephen McHattie
Case ?
RPI $39.95 Music Angelo Badalamenti

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (448Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Secretary is a rather strange film. It is intended to be a black comedy, but I must say that it is extremely dark and as a comedy is really very twisted indeed. It stars the excellent Maggie Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Adaptation) and features a very strong performance from her co-star James Spader (Pretty In Pink, True Colors).

    Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young girl from a middle class family in Florida. Recently released from a mental institution, following a period of self-mutilation, Lee decides that it is time to start shaping an independent life for herself. She attends "secretary college" where she blitzes the tests and begins her search for gainful employment. Answering an advertisement in the help wanted section leads her to the law practice of one E. Edward Grey (Spader). Outside the office is a permanent illuminated sign reading "Secretary Wanted" - in much the same style as a motel may display a "Rooms Vacant" sign. Could this be a sign (pun intended) of things to come? On entering his office for her interview, she is greeted by the exit of his last secretary, tears in her eyes, final pay cheque in her mouth and personal belongings piled into a cardboard box. Undeterred, and desperate to find her niche in life, Lee convinces Grey to give her the job.

    Over the next six months, the relationship between Grey and Lee develops into something...rather unconventional. Grey turns out to be an obsessive-compulsive sadist, who delights in humiliating Lee at every turn. Every spelling error she makes is highlighted in red and returned with a barked order to retype it. As luck would have it, Lee, while initially a little shocked, realises that she enjoys the attention - even though it may involve her being spanked, or dressed as a horse, complete with saddle, and carrot in her mouth. The two settle into a sadomasochistic relationship, with Lee happy to take whatever punishment Grey chooses to dish out - both in the workplace and at home via telephone messages.

    Grey actually cares deeply for Lee, convincing her to stop her acts of self-mutilation. Lee eventually throws away her little torture kit of iodine, cotton buds and sharp implements, happy to have all of her pain inflicted by the man she has grown to love. Sadly, an ashamed Grey cannot come to terms with his sadism and sacks Lee from the firm. Lee is unwilling to accept her life without Grey and determines to win him back...

    Secretary is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. There is some nudity and some quite strong sadomasochistic imagery but the film does manage to convey its message without resorting to gratuitous sex scenes. While the subject matter seems fairly repugnant to many, the intense and believable performances of Gyllenhaal and Spader make this much more than a titillating soft porn film. Gyllenhaal manages to look alternately like a sex symbol or a drudge, depending on the point in the story - not just because of make-up or costume, but in the way she uses her features and body language. With such strong talent, I am certain that she is destined for huge commercial and critical success in the future. The movie does work, albeit in an unconventional way, as a love story. The basic point of the film is that sadomasochism is a viable relationship choice, rather than a "problem" to be cured. Be warned, this will not be to everyone's taste - indeed I am not certain that I actually like the film - but there are some strong performances here to be appreciated. For a completely different take on romantic comedy, this may be a film you wish to rent.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


    The video quality of this transfer is reasonable.

    The video is presented 16x9 enhanced at 1.78:1 which is close to the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Overall, the transfer is a little soft with noticeable grain evident on occasion (for example in the sky at 3:41, the white shirt at 4:17, or the lamp at 52:04).

    Black levels are deep and solid and shadow detail is generally satisfactory, although some scenes were a little too inky for my liking. Colours are warm and fully saturated with no colour bleeding. There are some nicely rendered primary colours used in the shots of Lee's home and garden in particular. Skin tones are natural throughout.

    I noticed no major MPEG artefacts in the transfer, but low level pixelisation is evident in coloured backgrounds throughout. Edge enhancement was apparent from time to time (for example at 3:16 around the doctor or 37:34 around Spader's suit), but was never really a distraction. On my set-up, aliasing was not an issue, but when viewed in interlace some minor occurrences are apparent (for example the desk at 13:00). Telecine wobble or camera shake is occasionally mildly evident (for example at 38:04).

    Minor film artefacts are present in the shape of a few fleeting white specks from time to time, but overall this is a clean transfer.

    The English for the Hearing Impaired subtitles are well timed and easy to read. They follow the dialogue closely and provide suitable audio cues, including song lyrics, throughout.

    This disc is single sided and dual layered (RSDL formatted) with the fairly brief layer change located at 53:22. This occurs at a scene change, but causes a noticeable pause in the music which starts playing just a second or two before.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The overall audio transfer is serviceable with no major defects noted.

    The English audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo encoded at 448 kbps. The dialogue is always clear and I could detect no audio sync problems. There were no instances of hiss, pops or dropouts noted.

    The original music is credited to Angelo Badalamenti (Cabin Fever, The Beach) and complements the on screen activity fairly well. It is quite a pleasing score which at times lends a mysterious air through the use of percussion and piano, whilst at others almost sounding middle-eastern and calling belly dancers to mind.

    The front speakers all receive a workout, delivering quite a warm sound. There is little in the way of separation however, and panning effects are fairly limited, but the sound is cleanly delivered.

     With Dolby Pro Logic II enabled, the surround speakers are frequently used to support the musical score and to build a some depth into the soundstage, for example during the opening music and the rainstorm at 12:18. There is nothing in the way of directional panning or localised spot effects to speak of.

    The subwoofer is generally unused throughout the film, with no LFE track being present. On my set-up, there was some redirected bass from the score and this helped to build out the overall feel of the music.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    There are a few extras present on this disc.


    The main menu is animated with video clips from the movie, accompanied by music from the film. It allows the selection of playing the movie, choosing one of twenty-four chapter stops, language and subtitle options and access to the following special features:

Audio Commentary

    The commentary is provided by director Steven Shainberg and screenplay writer Erin Cressida Wilson. It is fairly informative and mildly entertaining as the two (mainly Shainberg) provide some insight into the creative process behind the film. Better than some commentaries I have listened to, this is worth a listen for fans of the film. Subtitles are available.

Behind The Secretary

    Running for a 7:10 and presented fullscreen (1.33:1 and therefore not 16x9 enhanced) with letterboxed inserts, this featurette is fairly typical EPK material. It presents the director and stars explaining what the film is about and why they chose to work on it. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 encoded at 448 kbps. There are subtitles available for the featurette.


    Running for 2:12 and presented 16x9 enhanced at 1.78:1 with a Dolby Digital 2.0 sound track encoded at 448 kbps.

Photo Gallery

    Can there be a more useless extra than the photo gallery? Oh well, such as it is this presents around a dozen shots of the various actors on set. Strangely, on my PC it runs as a blistering slideshow (lasting about five seconds), but on my DVD player it functions correctly requiring the chapter search key to be pressed before proceeding to the next photograph.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 1 version of this film appears to contain identical extras to our own, but is reportedly presented in the OAR of 1.85:1. Purists may prefer the Region 1 DVD for this reason.


    Secretary is a film which I suspect will appeal to fairly narrow audience. Fans of the excellent Maggie Gyllenhaal or those looking for a twisted take on modern love may wish to check it out. For those hoping to see a conventional romantic comedy - you would probably be more satisfied with tamer fare. This is no Sleepless in Seattle!

    The video quality is reasonable, albeit with an overall softness.

    The audio transfer is adequate for a film of its genre (and budget).

    The extras are slight but the commentary is not too bad.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Daniel O'Donoghue (You think my bio is funny? Funny how?)
Friday, October 31, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDHarmony DVD Video/Audio PAL Progressive, using Component output
DisplayPanasonic TX-47P500H 47" Widescreen RPTV. Calibrated with Video Essentials/Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials/Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR600 with DD-EX and DTS-ES
SpeakersJensenSPX-9 fronts, Jensen SPX-13 Centre, Jensen SPX-5 surrounds, Jensen SPX-17 subwoofer

Other Reviews
DVD Net - Anthony H (read my bio)
AllZone4DVD - Melinda D

Comments (Add) NONE