A Secret Love Review: A delightful, heart-warming coming-out story
A Secret Love documents two lovers shackled by societal constructs during their younger days for whom age itself has become a point of concern now
When we hear lines such as, "I don't care where we go. As long as we're together, we're happy," it's natural for us, the viewers from the current generation, to roll our eyes. Romance, in both regional films and Hollywood, over the years, has often exploited such cliched lines. But what if those lines are uttered by an octagenarian looking at the love of her life of more than six decades? Beautiful, isn't it? And if both of them belong to the same gender? 'So what?' we might ask today, but times were drastically different 65 years ago. And that lack of understanding, masquerading as hate and fear, caused two women — Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue — to lie to the world about their relationship. The coming-out tale of these two octagenarians is what Netflix's latest documentary, A Secret Love is all about.
Director: Chris Bolan
Cast: Pat Henschel, Terry Donahue
Streaming on: Netflix
Directed by Terry's great-nephew Chris Bolan, this little over one-hour documentary encompasses the journey of the two women. While the past is showcased with vintage videos and black-and-white photographs, the present features their own voices as well as that of Terry's extended family members. A Secret Love documents the issues the lovers confronted during their younger days and how that age itself has become a point of concern for their current lives.
Before going to their struggles of the past, we are introduced to Terry's family who was told just a few years back about the true nature of the duo's relationship. They weren't "friends" as the family believed or "cousins" as the rest of the world thought. Realism is this film's biggest strength and it is highlighted when we hear the women explain how they came out. While I was expecting them to be worried about the reactions of their dear ones, I was pleasantly surprised by the women's 'if they have a problem, it's their problem' attitude. The film then shows us a little of these ladies' background and then it dawns on us — the reason for their attitude.
Terry, as we later learn, was one of the pioneers of Canadian women's baseball - something that was considered as a men's sport back in those days. "I broke all the rules all my life and that's why I am happy," says the experienced Terry who tells us how the men initially flocked the stadiums to watch women playing in skirts. However, they witnessed women battling against each other and playing with bruises, and the next season, the men returned just for the love of the sport. Pat takes over the narrative to explain how their love story was something straight out of a musical. "Our first kiss was in the middle of a street during a sandstorm because no one could see us then," says Pat, who laughs about how they didn't care about checking into hotels with no luggage.
Though all this might seem like a Disney romance track, we are soon hit by the severity of homophobia back in those days. Newspaper clippings tell us how back in the 40s and till the mid-60s, two out of three Americans saw homosexuals with disgust, discomfort or fear. Pat and Terry, along with a pair of gay men who they've been friends with for decades, talk about their memories of gay bars being raided. Despite facing such ordeals, or because of it, they narrate the story with a straight face. Even something as simple as a love letter had to be stored with the bottom half ripped off so that if someone else reads it, they wouldn't find the name of the person who sent it.
If that isn't shocking enough, Diana, one of Terry's nieces and the closest relative of hers shares how her father used to say that Terry needed to be f***ed by a big black guy to set her straight. Terry herself says that her mother would've disowned her had she been alive.
But the docu isn't all gloomy and dramatic. Just like the two women, A Secret Love has a lot of lighter moments too. Take, for instance, Pat sharing her story of how she was into three men at different stages of her life and how all of them dying one after the other, was enough of a message that men just wouldn't make the cut for her. The sweet banter among the two are some of the best parts of A Secret Love. Even when their health deteriorates over the years (the docu covers more than half a decade of their lives), or when family dynamics go for a toss, their attitude stays the same.
Their love for each other too has stood the test of time, and it is the underlying theme of the docu. Scenes such as Terry asking Pat if she's got a headache after a heated argument, and Pat, with a broken voice, saying 'she means everything to me' when Terry is ailing, are sure to pull your heartstrings. What mattered the most to Terry and Pat was that they didn't have to hide their relationship from the world and were "not living a lie anymore." It's as if the burden they carried throughout their lives is finally off of them -- akin to the last line from Doris Day's Secret Love.
Now I shout it from the highest hills
Even told the golden daffodils
At last, my heart's an open door
And my secret love is no secret anymore.