Few pop hits of the 1950s were more expressly queer-coded than Doris Day’s Oscar-winning chart-topper “Secret Love.” “At last my heart’s an open door/And my secret love’s no secret anymore,” she trilled, putting a wholesomely straight face on a succinct ode to the cathartic joys of exiting the closet. The song billows wistfully through the opening credits of Chris Bolan’s documentary “A Secret Love,” an adoring portrait of a lesbian partnership entering its twilight years, and it’s an apt choice. Just as the song’s lyrical subtext didn’t prevent it being heard by the mainstream as a standard heterosexual love song, so did Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel pass for decades in general society as “friends” or “cousins,” the supposedly platonic nature of their relationship unquestioned even by some close family members.
Donahue and Henschel weren’t living a lie so much as restricting their truth to a secure circle of friends: the second family that many an LGBT person selects for themselves once they accept their own identity. As years pass, however, so does the threat of that truth dying with a single generation; with blunt emotional force, “A Secret Love” depicts the gradual opening of that circle, as the two women finally resolve to live their love out loud after nearly 70 years together. That this liberation coincides with the rapidly accumulating restrictions and indignities of old age is the irony that gives Bolan’s film its bittersweet thrust. At once a misty-eyed romance and a harsh depiction of the practical and emotional challenges of giving up independent living, “A Secret Love” isn’t subtle in its Kleenex-clutching tactics — as you’d expect from a project bearing the imprint of TV titan Ryan Murphy — but it’s certainly effective.
Landing next week on Netflix, where it’ll reduce many an already delicate viewer in quarantined lockdown to a soggy mass, “A Secret Love” was originally set to premiere at the canceled SXSW fest — where it surely would have proven the crowdpleaser promised by the presence of Murphy and, more improbably, Jason Blum on the producers’ list. Still, Bolan’s film was built to thrive on a small screen. Shot with minimal fuss on workaday video, it cleaves as close to its subjects as a doting home movie, and in a sense, that’s what it is. Bolan is one of Donahue’s great-nephews, and his Canada-based family is a vocal presence throughout the film, steering and debating the elderly couple’s future to occasionally fractious effect.
This strain of familial discord lends ballast to what might otherwise be a more plainly sentimental tearjerker. Both Canadian-born, Donahue and Henschel have been resident in Illinois since the 1950s, having first relocated there to enable Donahue’s progress in the All-American Girls Baseball League. (An entertaining sidebar on Donahue’s gutsy ball-playing career — a real-life “League of Their Own” story, as stressed by a clip from Penny Marshall’s 1992 hit — could fill a different documentary.) There was more to the move than that, however, as emigrating empowered both women to live as lesbians away from the potentially unaccepting gaze of family. As health problems mount, Donahue’s family — led by Diana, her favorite niece — encourage them to come back to Canada, nearer their care.
The more Henschel resists the suggestion, the clearer it becomes that she sees returning home as a surrender of hard-won liberties. On the other hand, she’s the one pressing a reluctant Donahue to finally put a ring on it after seven decades together: The shifting politics and personal perceptions of gay identity and community are tellingly revealed through these twin push-pull battles. Not all viewers’ sympathies will land exactly the same way on these fronts, which keeps things interesting even as the film pursues poignant emotional closure, egged on a little too insistently by Duncan Thum’s pretty, strings-swollen score.
Perhaps unavoidably, the perspective here is tilted more in favor of honey-hearted Donahue and her unreservedly loving kin than the more brusque, reticent Henschel, who has fewer allies on her side. “I don’t know if she’s good to me because she has to be or because she wants to be,” Diana tartly notes of her aunt-in-law. “A Secret Love” may largely seek unity, but it’s gently perceptive regarding the specific conflicts that queer relationships can introduce even to the most open-minded of families.
In any event, even latent tensions dissolve in the face of Donahue’s rapidly progressing Parkinson’s disease, as the couple’s comfortable, self-contained domestic harmony becomes untenable. Decisions are made and possessions are packed, photographs and memories spilling lavishly from the shelves in the process. “Look at all these pictures, these women and gay guys,” Diana murmurs as she helps them sort through the mass, marveling at the fact that she doesn’t know any of the affectionate faces in the frames — and realizing, perhaps for the first time, that her aunt’s life was richer and fuller than she ever knew. Teary as the present-day drama is, “A Secret Love” is most moving as it collects the keepsakes of a love that was secret to some, shared with many, and completely open to the lovers themselves.