This documentary from Netflix is a real heart-soother. Directed with tremendous sensitivity and intimacy by Chris Bolan, it is a love story about two women now in their 90s. A Secret Love tells the stories of two women, Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, who have been together since the 1940s.
1. Quick Review
For decades, they kept up the pretense of being “just good friends” to their families before finally coming out a few years ago. Talking to outsiders, they still describe each other as ‘cousins’. The legacy of shame and fear among older people in the gay community is explored in the film, but the overwhelming mood here is love.
A Secret Love is directed by Terry’s great-nephew. The director prods and picks at the family’s dynamics revealing complexities that are universal. Pat has a bit of a spiky relationship with Terry’s niece, Diana, who wants the couple to move into a care home. Terry has Parkinson’s and is becoming frail.
Pat is stubbornly refusing to budge, but it is Terry who has resisted getting married. Will that change as they live more publicly as a couple? It would be a spoiler to say more, but it’s incredibly moving.
2. Is it worth watching?
A Secret love is a heartfelt, touching, and deep love story. One might say Pat and Terry are brave for sharing it so openly with the world. One also might say they’ve been brave for being themselves for close to 70 years, no matter what they may have had to sacrifice.
With this triumphant Netflix documentary, director Chris Bolan chronicles the 62 wonderful and heart-breaking years the pair lived as spouses while remaining closeted. He also centers their experience within queer North American history, contextualizing their choice to hide their love from everyone but close friends in the LGBTQ community.
That story unfolds as the two women pack up the home they’ve shared for 21 years, preparing for a move into an assisted-living facility. Terry was a scrappy softball star from Saskatchewan, who was recruited at age 19 for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She was the inspiration for the 1992 film, A League of Their Own.
She traveled to Chicago to try out, where she played for four seasons. But it was back home in Canada on the hockey rink where she met her soul mate in 1947. Soon, Pat and Terry relocated to Chicago to live together as partners while always referring to each other as ‘cousins’ or ‘good friends’.
That is the territory Chris Bolan mines in his heartfelt documentary A Secret Love. The story of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, who met and fell in love in 1947. It would be more than 60 years before they could come out to their families.
At that time, they lived full and happy lives. They worked for the same interior-design company in Chicago and built a home in the house they owned together. In 2009, they cautiously revealed the nature of their relationship to Terry’s niece, Diana Bolan.
II. Music & Visuals
The music director of this documentary is American film score composer Duncan Thum. The soundtrack holds engaging and soulful melodies.
Songs include You Are My Love by Carmen Alexandra, With You by Valerie June, Take This Dance by Misty River, and My Mathematical Mind by Spoon. Doris Day’s Secret Love, from which the documentary gets its title, is also to be mentioned.
Terry and Pat are already in their 80s when we meet them. Terry has a sweet, open-hearted expression, while Pat is more peppery. To illustrate their story, director Bolan assembled a trove of old photographs and home movies, showing the two as young women. Pretty, vibrant “career girls” who clearly loved each other’s company. (There’s some wonderful footage of the couple clowning around at the beach, wearing identical conical straw hats). Bolan’s choice to use old footage and not enactments that might come off as cringe-worthy should be appreciated.
3. Final Thoughts
Director Chris Bolan takes a few moments to properly contextualize the harsh realities of being gay in mid-century America. The film, however, doesn’t stir a lot of outrage. Beyond their fears of being ostracized by family members, some of whom definitely wouldn’t have accepted their identities, Pat and Terry don’t share any stories of prejudice. Perhaps they keep such accounts to themselves. Perhaps they wish to move on positively.
This isn’t a tortured account of societal pressure and identity struggles, although they’re certainly implied. Neither is it a trifle. Underscoring the film is bold feminism that’s the subtext of their lives. It was Terry pushing conventional boundaries by “looking like ladies and playing ball like men,” or both of them refused to compromise who they truly are.
In the end, this is a love-conquers-all story. Everything else takes a backseat when Terry and Pat exchange rings in front of a teary-eyed crowd. We are privileged enough to witness both the culture and law finally catch up with their needs and desires, albeit belatedly.