Following last week’s exceptional documentary Circus of Books by Rachel Mason from executive producer Ryan Murphy, Netflix continues to offer its subscribers a diverse array of LGBTQ related original content. This week alone it adds Ryan Murphy’s epic ‘what if?’ retelling of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with two episodes directed by Janet Mock; Alice Wu’s high school set comedy drama The Half of It and this heart-warming documentary, A Secret Love. It’s exciting that these meaningful queer stories in a variety of forms are being released on such a large platform, hopefully finding their way in front of viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily seek out LGBTQ films and television, and changing some hearts and minds along the way. That potential for a large audience is further boosted by the two powerhouse names in the credits of A Secret Love, executive producer Jason Blum, and yes, you guessed it, producer Ryan Murphy.
As the film opens we meet Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel in their St Charles, Illinois home. The bond and intimacy between them is palpable, and confirmed as we glimpse their long history together as the camera pans the photographs in their living room. This is a love story spanning seven decades, but as you might have gathered from the title, it is also a coming out story. On the phone to Terry’s doctor Pat introduces herself, not as her partner, but as Terry’s cousin. An understandable caution about revealing the true nature of their relationship born out of a lifetime of navigating societal and legal prejudice.
Now in their late 80s to early 90s, it’s only recently that the women have begun to let their families know what they really mean to one another, with that same fear of rejection many of us growing up LGBTQ felt in our teens, having held them back from doing it sooner. They’ve received a mixed response from their families, but Terry’s devoted niece Diana is accepting and only wants the women to be safe and looked after as they advance in years and Terry’s Parkinson’s disease worsens. Having left Canada in the 1940s for a new life in the USA, Diana encourages the women to consider a return to their native country.
This is a deeply personal story that weaves the every day and the extraordinary, taking in pre-Stonewall LGBTQ history through lived experience. For instance the bar raids that saw women arrested for ‘impersonating a man’, simply by wearing multiple items of mens clothing, risking having their names printed in the newspaper, losing their reputation as upstanding citizens and their jobs. As a result of that threat, Pat and Terry preferred to let they let their hair down at private parties. Meanwhile at their jobs, working together at an interior design firm for 26 years, they had to present themselves in a way that would avoid any suspicion that they were lesbians, or a couple.
In a fascinating section of the film with some captivating archive footage, Terry recalls her four years during the Second World War playing in the first female professional baseball league. A period portrayed in Penny Marshall’s 1992 film A League of Their Own. “They wanted us to look like ladies, and play ball like men,” Terry says, “and that’s what we did”.
Although Pat might come across as pretty no-nonsense, nevertheless there is a true romantic soul in there. It’s deeply touching as she reminisces about the day the two women met in the ’40s, and after over 65 years together, Pat says the words we’d all love to hear from our partners, “So many years, and yet it seems like it started yesterday.” There are heartachingly romantic tales told by the women, like them kissing in a sandstorm (which meant no one could see them) and checking into a hotel together without any luggage just so they could be together. There’s a beautiful moment in the film where Pat reads one of the many a love letters she wrote Terry. If that doesn’t give you a lump in your throat, the detail that they had to cut off the names at the bottom of all the letters for fear that they’d be discovered by someone and their relationship would be revealed surely will. And who knows, if you’re someone who doesn’t believe in true love this might just be the documentary to change your mind.
As the women look back over their lives together there’s some delightful home movie footage and photographs accompanied by a tender, warm, soul-stirring score by Duncan Thum. The women clearly feel relaxed in front of the camera and it’s unsurprising to learn that the director is a family member, one of Terry’s great-nephews. Allowing him the kind of access to the women someone outside the family would likely not have been granted and giving us an insight into family dynamics that might otherwise have been missed.
What builds is a heart-warming, at times heart-breaking, look at love, loss, ageing and a reminder to cherish the time you have together if you’re lucky enough to find a partner for life. Far too often on screen we’ve been presented with the tragic lesbian. Here we see two women who’ve lived rich lives together filled with love. But more than that, this is a a hymn to the care and love we have for our fellow human beings, both our blood family and our chosen one. We might start out as strangers as Terry and Pat did in 1947, and end up meaning everything to one another.
By James Kleinmann
A Secret Love launches globally on Netflix on Wednesday April 29th 2020.