Unashamedly and often unsubtly moving, A Secret Love (Netflix) nonetheless tells a powerful, gracious love story.
This review of A Secret Love (Netflix) is spoiler-free.
Chris Bolan’s deeply personal, unashamedly blunt, and memorably bittersweet documentary feature A Secret Love (Netflix) chronicles a romance that has been going on largely behind closed doors for almost 70 years. It’s a wholesome and lovely film and an undeniable crowd-pleaser well-suited to a streaming release – perhaps even more so than its planned debut at the canceled SXSW festival.
Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel have been in love since 1947. Throughout most of the decades since, they passed off their relationship as platonic, its true nature known only to themselves and a close circle of confidantes. A Secret Love finds them as old women finally deciding to live their truths – while also, and this is the film’s cruelest trick, surrendering to the indignities of old age. Having finally decided to live publicly and without fear, they must also grapple with how little of their lives remain to them.
Produced by Ryan Murphy and, rather oddly, Jason Blum, and buoyed by Bolan’s familial connection to the story on Donahue’s side, A Secret Love has the intimate close-knit charms of a home movie; the sense of secrets shared between loved ones that we are graciously being made privy to. The history of the Canadian-born couple is recounted, a move to Illinois justified in terms of furthering Donahue’s All-American Girls baseball career and an escape from judgemental family, and their suggested return to Canada as a sad inevitability in the face of worsening health problems – an inevitability that is resisted, perhaps justifiably after a lifetime of being forced to flee, to hide, to adapt, to live largely in a façade rather than truthfully and openly.
Running throughout A Secret Love are the knotty threads of personal relationships tangled by specific obstacles of queerness, both in terms of larger cultural acceptance and more personal conflicts among family and friends, many of whom purport to be open-minded. But its sneakily powerful revelations are in how despite this, Donahue and Henschel have lived full lives, often independently and in secret, but nonetheless in a rich and fulfilling way. They have no regrets because they continue, after all these years, to have each other – which on some level is all they ever wanted in the first place.