Review: A Secret Love (2020) – A Hidden Life

Terry Donaghue and Pat Henschel in A Secret Love

\There is a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch at the beginning of Terreance Malick’s A Hidden Life about how for a society to succeed or even flourish it requires the little known stories of people you often wouldn’t take any notice of. Chris Bolan’s documentary A Secret Love is such a film, a personal story that’s effects are far reaching for anyone willing to hear the story. For some it will be a tale of changing tolerances across America over six decades, to others a discussion of the many roles gay men and women had to pay to keep ahold of what they held dear. While Bolan, whose great aunts are the subject of this Ryan Murphy produced documentary tells a tale of enduring love in your final years, one marred with tough decisions, declining health and concerned relatives, most of A Secret Love feels like a proud story of two rebels.

Telling the story of Terry Donaghue, who in the 1940s moved from Canada to compete in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1946 to 1949, defying the idea of what young women should be doing. While there she met her long-term partner Pat Henschel and began a relationship that would last 7 decades through years of intolerance as they hid their true connection to the rest of the country. Captured through carefully restored home videos and photographs that accumulated from over half a century together, Bolan doesn’t rely on others to tell their story with almost all of his testimonials coming from Terry or Pat, except for a few important voices along the way.

Opening on a visit to Terry’s family, specifically her niece Diana, for whom ‘Auntie Terry’ has been a mainstay in her life and a guiding voice over the years. While Bolan uses this visit to establish a disconnect between his audiences idea of conventional family, one that Pat feels separate from it also creates a conflict and narrative push for his tale, one that is interested in bringing people together, something at odds with an opening that intentionally pushes Terry and Pat away from their own extended family. The proud self reliant family they have made for themselves recoils against this conventional idea of the nuclear family but at the same time, the quiet domestic lifestyle they have built for themselves in their old age adds some much needed banality to Terry and Pat’s story, a simplicity that states outright that this should be the norm, it shouldn’t have to justify itself.

While concentrating on their later years as Terry’s health issues present new and unexpected problems for these two independent women, Bolan closes in on the notion of community, the ones waiting in the wings, the side characters who have passed in and out of this story, a community of people that have filled their solitary lives but from a distance. Bolan seeks to bring them all together and through some clever editing and a loose and welcoming interpretation of the word family, A Secret Love establishes a cast of characters in a documentary that feels almost like a personalised play.

While it flows a little too conventionally and Bolan’s fly on the wall camerawork rarely gives across the personal touches that would elevate the film to must watch cinema, this is an honest recounting of a quiet but vital love story. Bolan doesn’t oversell their story, something easy to do with a tale as close to his heart as this one. His story bounces form their successes to their failures consistently and constantly and despite their aging putting a clock on their story, it proves that a life is more than its end, highlighting what is truly important here. Flowing through Terry’s enviable baseball career to her advancing Parkinson’s to Pat’s undervalued poetry and forgotten love letters to her vocal clashing with Terry’s relatives. Bolan loves his subjects but he willingly paints their flaws and prove that despite a laid back approach to filming them, he doesn’t need to quantify their love through gestures.

The lingering question often revisited throughout, the idea that both should marry, something Terry argues is unnecessary considering they have made a life together by saying they don’t have anything to prove proves to be not so much a disagreement as a debate, a fun final rebellion, a fighting against an acknowledgement of a role they have been subverting since the 50s, the notion of the prim and proper housewife you see on the sides of old fashioned packaging, the ‘homemaker’. This final discussion feels like the culmination of all Pat and Terry’s in jokes, memories and mistakes all in one. Bolan doesn’t think an answer to this question is as important as the secret love that brought it about.

While there are elements that talk of defying roles and societal expectations, this is a film about family, community and the changing landscape of acceptance in modern day America so any progressive message takes a backseat to a tale where personal acceptance feels more important than some political or forward thinking message. Its hard not to be touched by the story and Pat and Terry are almost certainly role models but more for their achievements, not what proves the main story, their enduring love. What matters at the end is the journey and Bolan does a service to two lives lived and the quiet rebellion that brought this story about.

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