Forget Fifty Shades Of Grey – watch Secretary instead

Fifty Shades Of Grey is being tipped as the biggest Valentine’s Day movie in years. But Mark Butler argues that an overlooked cult film from 2002 told the same story in a much more enthralling way. 

When the much-hyped Fifty Shades Of Grey movie finally hits cinemas next Friday after months of gossip, speculation and ‘steamy’ trailers, audiences will no doubt be queuing around the block to see the long-awaited adaptation of EL James’s bafflingly popular novel.

There are glimmers of hope that it might not be utterly terrible. Jamie Dornan has proven he’s a talented actor, while director Sam Taylor-Johnson – BAFTA-nominated for Nowhere Boy – knows how to use a camera.

But going on both the lacklustre source material and the preview footage thus far, what viewers can actually expect seems to be a surprisingly vanilla ‘S&M’ relationship plastered onto a paper-thin romance story.

I mean, the whole “virgin student journalist enters relationship with impossibly handsome billionaire” shtick smacks heavily of amateur, fantasy fan fiction.

Which is, of course, what Fifty Shades Of Grey actually started out as.


If you actually want to watch an S&M love story that has real depth, emotion, tenderness and complexity, and actually has a ring of authenticity to it, then check out the relatively little-known Secretary instead.

Now something of a cult favourite, the 2002 drama stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as the smart but troubled and socially anxious Lee, who takes a job working for James Spader’s stuffy, old-fashioned and slightly oddball lawyer – whose surname, weirdly, also happens to be Grey.

Over time the two strike-up a sadomasochistic relationship fueled by Lee’s submissiveness and the attorney’s resultant arousal – initially sparked when Grey decides to spank her for making typing mistakes. Later, everything from a worm to literal horse-play become involved.

Secretary saddle

The key to this endearingly off-the-wall screen romance, however, and what makes it so powerful, is that it all feels utterly believable and grounded in reality.

That first moment of dominance is both incredibly awkward and notably emotional. Both participants are confused and unsure about their behaviour, but a single beautiful shot of their fingers interlocking shows that this is an intimate connection they dearly crave.

Secretary fingers

Away from the workplace, Lee’s doomed attempts to initiate a similar bond with the ‘normal’ boyfriend her family sets her up with is both funny and painful to watch, while Grey’s scared self-loathing at his own actions adds a necessary edge of self-doubt to the ‘dominant, powerful man’ cliché.

Crucially, Secretary is really about an unlikely couple finding love in a society where what they really want is still taboo, and coming to terms with their own desires and flaws.

It’s enthralling, sweet and ultimately uplifting, while still managing to possess enough erotic edge to make it daring. It doesn’t hurt that Spader and Gyllenhaal – who was nominated for a Golden Globe – are both terrific.

More than ten years ago, Steven Shainberg’s smart romance was striking a blow for alternative cinematic relationships when the Twilight-inspired Fifty Shades wasn’t even a glint in James’s eye.

Perhaps Taylor-Johnson’s film will live up to the hype, and be more than the goofy whips-and-chains farce the doubters expect. But just in case, be on the safe side – and watch Secretary instead.

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