Here’s a poignant romance about two Canadian women who passed themselves off as “cousins” for almost three quarters of a century because they grew up and fell in love at a time when that was called “the love that dare not speak its name.”
“A Secret Love” is in intimate, chaste romance starring two discrete little old ladies, longtime Chicagoans, who let one of them’s great nephew interview them about their lives and their love affair as those lives were starting to wind down.
Chris Bolan’s film tilts towards his great Aunt Terry Donahue, and captures some of the family friction that comes with end-of-life decisions, a situation only slightly complicated by the fact that they’re gay and kept that a secret from their families for over 60 years.
Family friction about “coming out?” There are dead relatives who wouldn’t have approved, we hear. But that’s not where the drama is here, because there was no drama about that, just one niece who grins as she huffs that they need to get married.
“Well, they can’t keep on living in sin.”
That’s the tone, here. It’s adorable, they’re adorable, and their story — starting in the mid-1940s and taken through to today — has a few surprises, a few bumps in the road, and a lot of warmth.
Terry is the more outgoing one, all but smothered by an adoring niece, Diane, who is heck-bent on getting them to relocate back in Canada — Edmunton, Alberta, not far from the small farm towns Terry and longtime companion Pat Henschel.
“Aunt” Pat is the reticent one, and in her we see the embodiment of Kurt Vonnegut’s description of a loving couple in trying times, “a nation of two.” They moved in together in another country because they knew no same sex couples, had no exposure to this “”underground” gay life that was only underground in places big enough for a subway — cities.
Small towns, where some girls were most comfortable playing baseball or hockey together and found their first stirrings of attraction among teammates? Homosexuality was pretty much invisible. These two met playing girls’ hockey, and felt the spark in an instant.
Pat loves being the sole support to Terry, who has Parkinson’s when we meet her, with Pat on the phone to her doctor, seeking counsel as her “cousin.” Over half a century of being the center of each other’s closeted lives, with a happy close circle of friends, fulfilling interior design careers behind them and a comfy life together — Pat’s not interested in leaving that and frozen Chicago behind for frigid and unfamiliar Edmunton.
“A Secret Love” doesn’t set out to be a history of changing attitudes towards homosexual relationships. But it pays lip service to the politically-motivated police persecution of the past, and samples that same 1967 Mike Wallace CBS documentary “The Homosexuals” that turn up in gay history documentaries to illustrate how far we’ve come.
The sense “A Secret Love” leaves you with is of lives that was more circumspect than circumscribed. They avoided gay bars back when those were being raided by Mayor Daley’s Chicago P.D. “We didn’t want to get sent to Canada, have their Green Cards yanked and themselves deported.
They missed nothing (each enjoys a beer or the occasional highball, even in their ’80s). Their home movies and hundreds of still photographs capture a deep intimacy easily masked by their conservative demeanor. Their dress and home decor is little-old-lady fussy, with lots of brick-a-brack — nothing that gives away their sexuality. The gay couple they’re closest to is male and decorates the same way. We see none of the explicit nudes that have become the gay decorating stereotype.
But as conservative as they are, Bolan sees them as ahead-of-the-curve feminists. And learning of Terry’s first career — as a shortstop for the Peoria nine who were in the All American Girls Baseball League, “A League of Their Own” in the 1940s — makes that case for the filmmaker.
Maybe the “lesbians in sport” stereotype is in play here, but Terry chuckles at recalling how naive and stand-offish she and a roommate/teammate were are “those other girls” who were up to who knows what.
There are stresses in the relationship in “A Secret Love,” but we root for them to be smoothed over. Perhaps Pat, “who never had to share Auntie Terry before” can be placated, Diana will dial down the (mostly polite, they are Canadian, after all) pushiness and “intervention,” and they’ve live as happily ever after as they’ve plainly lived all these years up until now.
Bolan gets a very sweet film out of a story where we never doubt, for a second, a happy ending.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, alcohol, adult themes
Cast: Terry Donahue, Pat Henschel, Diana Bolan
Credits: Directed by Chris Bolan, written by Chris Bolan and Alexa L. Fogel A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:21