A Secret Love
For over 65 years, Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel have been in love. Many friends thought they were cousins, and even relatives believed they were just best friends, so well protected was their secret, forbidden romance. Producer Ryan Murphy once again teams up with Netflix, following his recent LGBTQ documentary Circus of Books. A Secret Love takes us back to when Terry and Pat first met, through to their coming out and, ultimately, marriage. With aging and illness taking hold, their undying love proves as resilient as ever as they enjoy their twilight years out of the closet.
Terry’s great-nephew Chris Bolan was inspired to make the documentary after Terry came out at a very late stage in life. The result is an incredibly intimate and personal glimpse into the lives of these two women that only a family member could gain access to. The film flows at a steady pace, and much like Terry and Pat’s home, it is packed full of memories that are revealed through archive footage and home movies. The fact that old love letters had the bottom of the pages torn off to hide their identities speaks volumes about the fear the women had of their romance being revealed and their families subsequently disowning them.
It would be easy for the documentary’s primary focus to be the past. The prejudice and persecution of gay men and lesbians and the need to adopt a disguise to pass as “normal” would make for compelling and vital viewing. Further, exploring Terry’s time as a baseball player in an all-female professional team, which inspired the movie A League of their Own, would also have been engaging. These are, of course, touched upon, but the narrative soon shifts to the present. Here we see an ailing couple, as in love now as they’ve ever been, struggling to navigate the obstacles that old age throws at them, such as selling their home and deciding where to spend their final days. We can relate to the family conflicts and the contrasting opinions of the couple’s loved ones. We also feel tremendous empathy for these two very strong women, who have until now played by their own rules and leaned only on one another, but are now having to surrender their independence and invest their trust in others to look after them.
The closing chapters are the most emotive, as these lifelong lovers finally tie the knot. In a way we feel voyeuristic, like uninvited guests, witnessing such a personal milestone. But we share and revel in its poignancy and meaning. There have been a great many sacrifices made and struggles endured by previous generations to get us to the point we’ve finally reached, where people do not have to lead secret lives and stay in the closet. Documentaries such as this serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come, while also highlighting how relatively recent these seemingly archaic attitudes towards homosexuality were.
Undoubtedly a much-needed addition to the LGBTQ film canon, A Secret Love deserves to be seen on a platform as big as Netflix. There is much to take from this beautiful and evocative film, but its final message is perhaps the most timely and pertinent. “Love is love, and that’s the most important thing.”
A Secret Love is released digitally on Netflix on 29th April 2020.
Watch the trailer for A Secret Love here: