Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 28th, 2020
A Secret Love (Chris Bolan, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Beware “the love that dare not speak its name,”* as it will lead to a lifetime of shame and isolation, removing one from the company of family and friends. Or at least that’s how things used to be. Far from perfect though our present-day attitudes towards homosexuality may be, at least gay marriage is the current law of the land and bigotry has been beaten back a little, for the moment. In director Chris Bolan’s debut feature documentary, A Secret Love, releasing April 29 on Netflix, we meet two elderly women, Emma Marie Henschel (Pat) and Theresa Paz Donahue (Terry), who have spent their lives together as a couple while hiding the truth of their relationship to most of the outside world. Now, however, they have a chance to speak the truth and finally formalize their bond. It’s a beautiful thing.
Physically, approaching 90, they are less than what they once were, and Terry, especially, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, appears the worse off. Mentally, however, they are as strong as ever, and determined to remain side by side even as they consider where to move now that their longtime home no longer serves their evolving needs. Both originally from Canada, though residing since the 1940s in the Chicago area, they consider moving back north, where Terry’s nieces and nephews live, but Pat frets that it’s too cold (as if Chicago were all that warmer). The not-so-subtle subtext of her real concerns, as it must be for everyone at that stage of life, is the loss of control. And so we watch as the two women, now out and proud, figure out the next steps.
We also learn much about their dynamic pasts. Terry played with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (featured in Penny Marshall’s 1992 A League of Their Own), while Pat played hockey (if just for fun). Both worked at Watson & Boaler, a Chicago design company, and claimed that no one ever suspected the true nature of their partnership. They played the part of single spinsters well, dressing in high heels and lipstick and just getting along. Often, they would refer to themselves as cousins. We see it all via archival footage and photgraphs. Though happy – and they make sure to let us know that theirs has been a full life – they nevertheless lived with the burden of their covert reality. How delightful to be free of that weight!
But not all is euphoria today, as those nieces and nephews of Terry’s, though loving, have their own thoughts on what is best for the duo now, coupled with resentments over how Pat has kept Terry from them (and vice versa for Pat vis-à-vis them). The wonder of the movie, even as it drags in some scenes, is in watching everyone work out their feelings and negotiate solutions that lead to the best possible outcomes, given the circumstances. Indeed, secret homosexuality aside, the film is as much about the process of mediating old age as anything else, making its central narrative profoundly universal, and making A Secret Love a powerful paean to the complex joy of the human spirit.
*The last line of Lord Alfred Douglas’ “Two Loves” poem